A generation of Mississippi State fans grew up to know nothing but frustration when it came to their visits to Tiger Stadium.
They came. They ate well. They lost. Again and again and again, every year since 1991. Cowbells turned to rust waiting to be rung in victory in Baton Rouge.
Saturday night, they rang out again loud and strong across a stunned LSU campus from the levee to the lakes.
Considering how long it’s been since the Bulldogs conquered the Tigers, they may never stop.
Mississippi State beat the Tigers 34-29, and they beat them in ways few teams ever do: dominating them, whipping them physically and imposing their will on the locals for all but a frantic final two minutes in which the Tigers nearly committed grand larceny with a comeback that would have made the Wisconsin game look like shoplifting.
It’s a result that will go down as smooth as a mint julep in Starkville and Jackson and Vicksburg. It’s an outcome that for the Tigers suddenly throws the rest of the season — save next week’s scrimmage against New Mexico State — into a tangle of troubling questions melded to a wisp of hope named Brandon Harris.
It’s easy to take the all-or-nothing view: If LSU can lose to Mississippi State for the first time in well, this century, who can it beat as it goes forward into Southeastern Conference play?
First, if anyone thinks they have the SEC figured out at this point, they’re fooling themselves. Maybe it’s that State is on the verge of that rare championship season. Maybe it’s that all of LSU’s faults and foibles congealed into one painful night.
It’s all too early to label, but pin this label on Mississippi State on this night: The better team wore maroon and white.
It went badly for LSU from the start. The Tigers took the opening kickoff and meekly went three-and-out, trying to pierce State’s talented front seven with a conservative running attack that looked doomed from the start.
It was. LSU punted and Haughton native Dak Prescott drove State like Jeff Gordon 51 yards for a quick 7-0 lead.
The Tigers had a chance to counter-punch, catching the Bulldogs cold with a 44-yard halfback pass from Terrence Magee (another old Louisiana quarterback from Franklinton) to Malachi Dupre that gave LSU first-and-goal at the 9. But even after a pass interference penalty made it first-and-goal at the 2, the Tigers couldn’t net 6 feet, Anthony Jennings stopped for no gain on fourth down from the 2.
In less than two minutes, LSU’s fate seemed sealed. State swept 98 yards for a 3-yard Josh Robinson touchdown run, and the Bulldogs were up 17-3 at halftime.
Prescott gave his home state a glimmer, fumbling on the first play of the third quarter as Danielle Hunter returned the ball 25 yards to make it 17-10. All those memories of all those LSU wins over all these years (14 straight, 21 of 22) came flooding back.
But Prescott wasn’t shaken. Instead he looked like he was channeling his inner John Bond — the State quarterback who looked as crafty as James Bond running over and around LSU for four straight wins in the early 1980s. Prescott rumbled 56 yards on a keeper for one score, then spun away from pressure to throw a 74-yard TD pass to Jameon Lewis that put LSU in a 31-10 black hole that it nearly climbed out of.
Yes, for the record, LSU recruited Prescott, but he held true to an early commitment to Mississippi State. The rest was an opportunity for Prescott to write himself into Bulldogs football history.
His play stood in stark relief with that of LSU sophomore Anthony Jennings, who was skittish and often wide of the mark as he struggled again to hit the 50 percent completion mark, along with Tigers receivers.
LSU’s stubborn insistence on sticking with the “I” formation most of the night speaks volumes about Les Miles’ lack of confidence in Jennings or his even more youthful backup, Brandon Harris. He got in late when Jennings was injured and nearly executed Le Grande Comeback with two touchdown passes in the last two minutes and was heaving for the goal line as time expired.
Harris has more talent but has left his coaches gun-shy with his inability to grasp the offense. The result is the LSU quarterback meeting room hasn’t been this much of a panic room since 2008 with Andrew Hatch, Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson flailing away.
But this stunning defeat shouldn’t just be laid on Jennings’ shoulder pads. The defense, which was coming off back-to-back shutouts against overwhelmed teams, was abysmal, giving up 570 yards.
Yet, it’s one game. In modern college football, sometimes there are huge implosions, and they aren’t always fatal. This can still be a better LSU team at the end of the season than it is right now.
But the bells, the bells. They will taunt the Tigers for a long time.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.