November 4, 2013 3:04:23 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In a small way Saturday afternoon, Dan Mullen saw a loss coming.
While the Mississippi State football coach didn't see five turnovers contributing to a 34-16 loss at then-No. 14 South Carolina, he realized MSU's tendency to gain big yards and not score in its past two games against unranked opponents could come back and haunt it against ranked teams.
"We had a lot better pass completion, more yards, and more plays," Mullen said. "We did a great job on third down against one of the best defenses in the league. We did a lot of things to win, but give South Carolina credit. They didn't make mistakes and they made the plays."
Entering the game, MSU (4-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) had 11 drives accumulate at least 47 yards and not produce points. For a drive starting at the 25-yard-line after a touchback, 47 yards would move the football to the opponent's 28 and set up a chance to kick a 45-yard field goal.
Mullen pointed out this statistical anomaly in nail-biting victories against Bowling Green and Kentucky, and he hoped that a return to games against ranked opponents would increase his team's focus.
"I thought we had a great week of practice and had great preparation," Mullen said. "It's an early kickoff, and sometimes you're worried as a coach if you're going to have get your team up and going. We had a 7 a.m. wakeup time, but our guys were ready to go. You look at the game and we did some really good things."
Against South Carolina (7-2, 5-2), MSU wasted a drive at the end of the first half due to poor clock management. With about 30 seconds left and inside South Carolina territory, MSU saw a chance to score go by the boards after using three timeouts and gaining 3 yards. Dak Prescott's pass over the middle to wide receiver Robert Johnson ended the half after MSU couldn't decide whether to kick a field goal or to spike the ball on third down.
"That's an embarrassment of a half," Mullen screamed in his halftime interview on MSU's radio broadcast. "Poor clock management (and) poor coaching."
With MSU receiving the opening kickoff, it compounded its poor clock management by fumbling away the opening possession of the second half. South Carolina needed only four plays to score a touchdown and extend its lead to 24-10.
"Everybody doing their job," Prescott said after the game when asked what needed to be fixed. "Everyone making the block, everybody doing the right route, being big on a catch, just the little things we have to fix, and it starts with me. We are going to get that right."
MSU had three plays of 10 yards or more on its first drive that resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run by Prescott. The Bulldogs had 14 more plays of 10 or more yards the rest of the game. Half of them came with MSU losing by three scores and South Carolina playing a soft defense.
This week, MSU will face No. 11 Texas A&M, the SEC's most potent offense in terms of scoring, total yardage, and passing yardage. Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Aggies also lead the league in plays of more than 10, 20, and 30 yards. Mullen knows MSU's ability to score after big drives needs to improve if it is going to win a shootout.
"Our five second-half possessions included three turnovers and one with a stupid coaching penalty that caused us to move backwards," Mullen said. "Those types of things tend to nip you in different ways every week when things aren't going well."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.