BATON ROUGE, La. — Craig Loston helped keep Mississippi State in Saturday night’s SEC West battle when he lost coverage on a Bulldogs’ touchdown in the third quarter.
With 1:13 to play, the LSU defensive back ripped away Mississippi State’s last-gasp hope.
Loston intercepted Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, clinching No. 7 LSU’s 37-17 win over the 21st-ranked Bulldogs in Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers let Mississippi State hang around for most of the first three quarters, a likely hangover from last week’s pounding and emotional loss to Alabama.
LSU’s hangover, however, wasn’t nearly as bad as the one four-plus hours up the road in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where No. 1-ranked Alabama followed up its last-second win over the Tigers with a stunning five-point loss to Texas A&M.
A week after failing to finish against Alabama, the Tigers (8-3, 4-2 SEC) were able to do it against Mississippi State.
“I liked how we responded,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We could have been hang dog. We could have been miserable. Just all this and all that. But you know what, that’s not how this team is.”
And they did it with an efficient offense led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who is suddenly showing signs of the on-field leader the team hoped it was getting. The junior quarterback was 19 of 30 for a season-high 273 yards and two touchdowns.
It helped that Mettenberger found his go-to receiver in Jarvis Landry. The sophomore set career highs in catches with nine and yards with 109. He also scored the team’s first touchdown of the game.
The Tigers were 9 of 15 on third down and gained 392 total yards, including 119 on the ground.
“I know his (Miles’) confidence is definitely building with us making plays,” Mettenberger said. “That’s something that we should have been doing all year but at least it’s finally happening and hopefully we keep it rolling.”
Meanwhile, LSU’s defense kept Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) to only 351 total yards, nearly 30 below the Bulldogs’ season average. The Tigers allowed Mississippi State to convert only 10 of 10 third downs and just 47 yards rushing.
Loston’s interception return was the punctuation to a big night for the Tigers’ defense.
“We felt some of their players were pretty good at rushing the passer, so we did some things to get the ball out quick and it was effective,” said Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell, who finished 26 of 38 for 295 yards with one touchdown and the interception. “Unfortunately they made more plays than we did and all of our guys fought until the end. Sometimes you can fight as hard as you want and still not win the game.”
Mississippi State struck first, driving 74 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead when quarterback Dak Prescott faked a handoff only to hit a wide open Marcus Green in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown.
LSU appeared on its way to tie the game, marching into the red zone after Michael Ford 41-yard kickoff return and two straight third-down conversions. But the drive stalled at the Bulldogs’ 12 and Drew Alleman booted a 28-yard field goal to cut into Mississippi State’s lead 7-3 with just 11 seconds to play in the first quarter.
Alleman’s second field goal, a 26-yarder, pulled the Tigers to within 7-6 midway through the second quarter.
On the ensuing Mississippi State series, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo gave the Tigers their biggest defensive play of the first half. He pushed the offensive lineman blocking him into the backfield, forcing a fumble on a pitch that Tigers’ linebacker Lamin Barrow recovered at the Bulldogs’ 21. Three plays later, Mettenberger hit Landry for a 19-yard touchdown and a 13-7 lead.
Mississippi State answered with a 47-yard Devon Bell field goal with 48 seconds to go before halftime, halving LSU’s lead to 13-10.
LSU didn’t take the foot off the gas as the first half came to a close, using the little time left on the clock to march 71 yards in four plays, capped by a Mettenberger to Spencer Ware 20-yard touchdown pass.
“We worked on it, worked on it, worked on it and I just think we’re getting better,” Miles said of the two-minute drill. “The time and effort that is being spent there is paying dividends and is fruitful.”
Despite trailing in the first quarter, the Tigers owned a 20-10 halftime lead. Mettenberger had 174 yards and two touchdowns at the half, carrying over his play from a week earlier when he nearly led the Tigers to a win over Alabama.
But if the game appeared heading for a blowout, LSU mistakes in the opening three minutes of the third quarter kept it from being one.
Odell Beckham Jr. muffed a punt at the LSU 29, which Mississippi State recovered. One play later, defensive back Craig Loston was called for pass interference, and then he let Chad Bumpus behind him in the end zone, where Tyler Russell found him for a 14-yard touchdown. And just like that, LSU’s lead was down to 20-17.
Alleman’s third field goal of the night, this time from 41 yards, pushed LSU’s lead to 23-17. Eight minutes later, fullback J.C. Copeland scored on a one-yard plunge, giving the Tigers a 30-17 lead and all but ending any Bulldogs upset bid.
“The question was whether this football team would come to play after playing an emotional game a week ago,” Miles said. “There is not any question that they were. There is a fundamental feeling in this stadium and in our football building that we are just catching speed. We are just getting the pace that we need.”