STARKVILLE, Miss. — LSU’s season opener was well worth the wait.
Mississippi State kicker Devon Bell missed a 52-yard, potential game-winning field goal as time expired, and the Tigers escaped rowdy Davis Wade Stadium with a nail-biting 21-19 win in their delayed season opener Saturday night.
No. 14 LSU (1-0, 1-0 Southeastern) won its 13th straight season opener, its eighth straight game in Starkville, and it avenged last year’s 34-29 loss to the Bulldogs (1-1, 0-1) in Baton Rouge.
It all came a week after the Tigers’ scheduled opener against McNeese State was canceled because of weather, setting up this nationally televised, late-night showdown in northeast Mississippi between ranked SEC Western Division foes.
Worth the wait? Indeed.
“All in all,” coach Les Miles said, “it’s a very satisfying win at a place that had a Heisman Trophy hopeful.”
Running back Leonard Fournette starred on the big stage, and quarterback Brandon Harris, making his second career start, passed for just 71 yards but didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Fournette ripped off a career-high 159 yards and three scores to help the Tigers avoid suffering back-to-back losses to No. 25 State for the first time in 24 years.
LSU’s defense — debuting under new coordinator Kevin Steele and D-line coach Ed Orgeron — had three sacks and smothered State quarterback Dak Prescott up until that final quarter. Still, the defense needed two whiffs from State to survive: a misfire from Prescott on a potential game-tying two-point conversion with 4 minutes left and that missed field goal from Bell, who hadn’t attempted a kick since 2013.
State turned what looked to be a rout into a close one with two crowd-rousing touchdowns in the final quarter — and the Bulldogs moved down the field on a wild final drive.
Prescott, State’s Heisman Trophy hopeful from Haughton, drove the Dogs to the LSU 28-yard line in the waning seconds. State then committed an ill-timed delay-of-game penalty, and Bell raced on to kick his 52-yarder, booting it after two timeouts from Miles. The kick was short and to the right, sending Tigers players and coaches racing onto the field in celebration: Win No. 1 on Sept. 12, the latest season opener since 1998.
Fournette set a career high with 28 carries, and he helped the Tigers take what felt like a commanding 21-6 lead midway through the third quarter before State’s late charge.
Prescott had five straight completions in State’s six-play, 82-yard touchdown drive to pull within 21-19. His 5-yard touchdown pass to De’Runnya Wilson got Davis Wade Stadium rolling and pulled State within two points with 4 minutes left.
A tying two-point conversion try failed when Prescott threw too low to an open Ashton Shumpert, State’s running back, racing out of the backfield in the flats.
It only set up more fireworks in front of the cowbell-ringing 62,531 packed into Davis Wade Stadium — the second-largest crowd in State history.
“Nobody was happy after the game,” Fournette said. “It wasn’t supposed to be that close.”
Harris, in his first significant playing time since his 3-for-14 flop at Auburn last year, finished 9-of-14 passing with no interceptions or touchdowns. He completed just four passes in the second half as the Tigers rumbled for 266 rushing yards in the game.
Miles, when asked whether he’d like to see Harris throw the ball more, read Fournette’s stats.
“We have some other good players on our team,” he said.
“Harris scrambled when he needed to,” the coach later said. “Made some plays with his feet.”
Harris didn’t seem to mind having just 14 attempts.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
State put up the most yards against a Miles team last season with 570 and won for the first time against the Tigers in 14 years. LSU reversed much of those stats, rolling up rushing yards and holding Prescott to the lowest rushing output of his career: minus-19 yards.
“The mindset was to stop (Prescott),” cornerback Tre’Davious White said.
LSU returns home on a high for an equally large game Saturday: vs. No. 6 Auburn, which needed overtime to beat Football Championship Subdivision squad Jacksonville State on Saturday.
Fournette notched touchdown No. 3 with 6:48 left in the third quarter to make it 21-6. State answered the next drive, jump-starting its comeback with an up-tempo, quick-passing attack from Prescott. He finished with 335 yards through the air.
“Our defense played really tight two-man coverage in the first half,” Miles said. “Their big receivers made some really good plays.”
The Tigers started fast, scoring touchdowns — both from Fournette — on their second and third drives of the game and getting big plays from Harris on key downs. The sophomore QB hit DeSean Smith for a 23-yard gain on third down to set up the first score, and receiver Malachi Dupre made a leaping, 20-yard catch to set up the second.
“We came out how we wanted to. We came out fast,” Dupre said.
Fournette, aligning at quarterback, leaped over the top of the pile for a 1-yard touchdown to start the scoring. He raced in from 26 yards on the second touchdown, getting a key block from fullback JD Moore.
LSU’s final three possessions of the first half ended in punts — a trend of what would come. Eight of the Tigers’ final nine drives ended in punts as the Tigers struggled to put the ball in the air.
Harris completed just four passes — and attempted just nine — in the second half as coaches leaned on Fournette and running back Darrel Williams, who had 45 yards.
Part of the offensive woes can be blamed on penalties. The Tigers had two touchdowns called back and two more plays of 15 yards or more negated — stats that had Miles salty afterward.
“We’ve gotta get rid of these damn penalties — I’ll tell you that right now,” he said.
The defense had two sacks of Prescott in the first quarter — the same amount it had on the QB in four quarters of last season’s loss. Freshman Arden Key, on State’s third series and on the first play of his career, sacked Prescott and then roared into a celebration. Key and cornerback Kevin Toliver, who started at cornerback in the five-defensive back nickel formation, had spectacular freshman debuts.
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and defensive end Lewis Neal had sacks, and State failed on its first six third-down attempts as the Tigers raced to a 14-3 halftime lead.
Fournette finished the job, pounding State’s defensive front. He had nearly 100 yards in the second half.
“He’s a dominant back, a guy that can make you miss,” Miles said. “He can bring the power. Late in games, he can make a difference.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.