Mississippi State football escapes Louisiana Tech after epic fourth-quarter rally

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

All of a sudden, the boos that had been heard in pockets inside Davis Wade Stadium turned to the clanging of cowbells as Lideatrick Griffin weaved his way through Louisiana Tech’s kickoff coverage team.

If one play to end the first quarter had tipped the balance of the game in Louisiana Tech’s favor, then the Mississippi State return man’s contributions tipped it back the Bulldogs’ way — in a big way, leading to a 35-34 win in Saturday's season opener.

Starting with Bub Means’ 72-yard touchdown to end the first quarter, Louisiana Tech scored 34 straight points on coach Mike Leach’s squad. But with that 70-yard return from Griffin, Mississippi State’s offense came alive once more, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions.

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And the defense that had bent much of the game suddenly became impermeable. A 20-point deficit had been turned into a one-point lead in a span of 10 minutes — the largest comeback in school history, per ESPN's broadcast.

The beginning of Leach’s second season in Starkville wasn’t pretty. It took a roaring comeback to secure a win and Jacob Barnes' 46-yard missed field goal as time expired. But win MSU did, finishing off a game that looked destined for an upset. 

Here are four takeaways from the Bulldogs’ season-opening win.

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Jo’quavious Marks

Marks showed he could be an all-around contributor last year as a freshman, and he backed that up, even as the offense largely scuffled. The running back was the brightest spot for the Bulldogs, proving he can be a factor on the ground and through the air.

As Mississippi State mounted a comeback, Marks punched in two rushing touchdowns. And the sophomore was a big part of how the Bulldogs took a 14-0 lead out, giving Will Rogers a reliable check-down option out of the backfield.

Marks finished with 98 all-purpose yards, including nine catches and three touchdowns.

Turnovers loom large

After a strong start to the game, Leach’s offense fell flat, with turnovers the main culprit.

Louisiana Tech failed to score off either of Mississippi State’s turnovers in the second quarter, a fumble from running back Dillon Johnson and a strip-sack of Rogers. But those turnovers were part of a stagnant quarter for the Bulldogs’ offense that allowed Louisiana Tech to take control.

And in the third, as Mississippi State attempted to put together anything resembling offensive production, the Bulldogs hurt themselves some more. After Austin Williams reeled in a 30-yard reception, he laid face down on the turf one play later, the ball wrenched out of his arms.

Rogers, under pressure again, tried to make something happen. Instead, he made something happen for Louisiana Tech, with his pass picked off and returned for a touchdown by Trey Baldwin, another major miscue.

Big plays hurt again

For as solid as Mississippi State’s defense was last year — finishing fifth in the SEC in yards allowed per game — the big play was that unit’s Achilles heel. And those issues cropped up again early Saturday.

The Bulldogs largely dominated the opening quarter, until quarterback Austin Kendall found wide receiver Bub Means wide open down the sideline for a 72-yard touchdown as the quarter expired. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes had allowed Means to sneak by him, and safety Jalen Green was late getting over in coverage.

Later, Kendall fooled the defense on a keeper, scampering 59 yards for the score. At one point in the second quarter, those two plays accounted for 81% of Louisiana Tech’s total yards. But they wouldn’t be the lone breakthroughs for the Bulldogs, who finished with 369 total yards.

In the end, the MSU defense did enough to hold onto the win.

Comeback kids

It took a Mississippi State player getting a hand on the ball to avoid an upset. But the offense came alive in the fourth quarter behind Rogers and Marks.

Rogers finished with 370 yards passing and three touchdowns and completed 39 of 47 passes. His primary target was transfer Makai Polk, who pulled in 10 catches, and sophomore Jaden Walley snagged the winning 15-yard pass from Rogers late in the game.

The dichotomy on display was somewhat worrisome, with four turnovers and a downtrodden second and third quarter. But Leach’s squad recovered in the fourth to avoid an upset to begin the season.