For the third time in four games this season, LSU’s offense struggled in the first half Saturday night.
For the first time this season, it cost the Tigers. Dearly.
Despite sputtering mightily in the first half of the season opener with Wisconsin and again the previous week against Louisiana-Monroe, scoring just 17 points in the first two quarters of those two games, LSU managed to overcome its problems and win both.
Not Saturday night in LSU’s Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State.
Eighth-ranked LSU got into a big hole early and never could catch up — despite a furious fourth-quarter rally — in dropping a 34-29 decision.
The slow start doomed the Tigers, especially when you consider the game ended with freshman Brandon Harris heaving a Hail Mary pass to the end zone that was intercepted by MSU cornerback Will Redmond after Harris came off the bench to fire two touchdown passes in a 28-second span in the final two minutes to give his team a shot.
LSU, however, got only a 30-yard field goal from Colby Delahoussaye in the first half and trailed 17-3 at halftime even though it seemed like the deficit was much bigger after State bolted to a 17-0 lead before a stunned home crowd.
“That’s what happens when you play a good team,” Tigers coach Les Miles said of his team’s poor start on offense. “If you don’t execute when you have your chances, you finish second. That’s what we did today.”
The Tigers’ offensive issues, combined with the defense giving up several explosive plays to the Bulldogs’ offense, spelled trouble from the start.
The biggest example came late in the first quarter after MSU grabbed a 7-0 lead with a 51-yard drive on its first possession — a series that started with a 25-yard pass from Dak Prescott to Malcolm Johnson to the LSU 26.
That series was capped by De’Runnya Wilson’s highlight-reel 9-yard touchdown catch from Prescott despite tight coverage from Tigers’ safety Dwayne Thomas in the corner of the end zone.
After LSU’s defense came alive with back-to-back sacks of Prescott to end State’s second possession, the Tigers offense got on track and had a first-and-goal at the MSU 9 following a 44-yard pass from Anthony Jennings to Malachi Dupre.
A pass interference call against Redmond on a pass for Travin Dural in the end zone gave the Tigers some momentum with a first down at the 2, but that’s where it all started to go bad.
Four consecutive runs into the middle of the line by Darrel Williams, Leonard Fournette, Kenny Hilliard and Jennings netted nothing in what was a huge win for the Bulldogs defense to keep the Tigers off the scoreboard.
Mississippi State’s offense then made LSU pay, easily doing from their own 2 what the Tigers couldn’t do from the Bulldogs’ 2.
After Prescott gained 2 yards to begin the drive, they produced three big plays in a row to turn what could have been a 7-7 tie into a 14-0 lead.
Prescott threw a 26-yard pass to Wilson, Josh Robinson had a 23-yard run to the LSU 47 and Prescott combined with Wilson again on a 44-yard pass to the Tigers’ 3 to set up a touchdown run by Robinson on the next play.
LSU’s next possession ended with back-to-back sacks of Jennings after the Tigers reached the Mississippi State 40.
Defensive end Ryan Brown, who stopped Williams cold on first down on the goal-line series, helped bring Jennings down on second down before defensive end Preston Smith, the three-time SEC defensive lineman of the week, raced around center Elliott Porter for 9-yard sack to end the scoring threat.
Mississippi State continued to move the ball against LSU’s defense, which didn’t help the Tigers’ sluggish offense, as Robinson ripped off a 66-yard run to set up a field goal for a 17-0 lead.
LSU’s only score of the first half came on Delahoussaye’s field goal to trim the deficit to 17-3, and not even a touchdown by the defense on the first play of the second half — a 25-yard fumble return by defensive end Danielle Hunter that made it 17-10 — could light a fire under the offense.
The Tigers did show signs of life in the second half after Mississippi State pushed the lead to 34-10 with 14:49 to play in the game.
LSU scored three touchdowns in the final 12½ minutes to make it 34-29 with 1:27 remaining — the last two on passes of 31 and 30 yards from Harris to Dupre — but it came too late to make a difference in the end.
Harris completed 6 of 9 passes for 140 yards, which could at least give him a chance for more playing time after Jennings, who generated a comeback from a 24-7 deficit for a 28-24 win against Wisconsin, was 13 of 26 for 157 yards with three sacks.
“(Harris) definitely gave a string performance when he came in,” Miles said. “We are still going to look at the overall body of work and the things that we can do with him. He certainly made a case today that we need to look at a bit more seriously.
“If you look at the position he was in late in the game, he is coming. We will look at it.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.