BATON ROUGE, La. — Leonard Fournette’s bruised left ankle didn’t stop him from exhibiting his usual mix of hard-nosed and explosive runs. His fumbles, however, gave Mississippi State the breaks it needed to turn a game that had the makings of a comfortable LSU victory into a rather tense affair.
Fournette rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns, and the 20th-ranked Tigers withstood the Bulldogs’ late rally for a 23-20 victory on Saturday night.
“We’re fortunate it finished like it did,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It’s a great lesson for us.”
Danny Etling completed 19 of 30 passes for 215 yards in his first start for LSU (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference), including a 37-yard touchdown strike to D.J. Chark.
“I continue to get more and more comfortable with the first team guys,” Etling said.
Fournette, who sat out last week’s victory over Jacksonville State, ran over tacklers for his 5-yard TD and burst into open field for his 25-yard score. He also had four receptions for 27 yards. He did not speak with media after the game, but his teammates sounded pleased to have him back.
“The thing about Leonard is that he is a nice comfort for anyone running this offense and it was great to be in the backfield with a back of his caliber,” Etling said. “You know if you can get him the ball that he is going to make some plays for the offense and that in turn makes your job easier as the quarterback.”
Yet Fournette’s performance was somewhat tarnished by his two fumbles, one of which was recovered by the Bulldogs and one of which resulted in a failed fourth-and-short play in MSU territory in the fourth quarter. And it was that turnover on downs that sparked the Bulldogs’ late rally with backup Damian Williams at quarterback.
If the Tigers had converted that fourth-and-1 play, Miles said, “it’s just a walk in the park at that point.”
Instead, the Tigers gave up touchdowns with 4:10 and 3:30 left, the second after the Bulldogs (1-2, 1-1) recovered an onside kick.
The Bulldogs then forced a punt after three plays, but Josh Growden’s booming, 61-yard boot pinned MSU at its own 23, and Arden Key’s second sack of the game forced a fumble that Davon Godchaux recovered to seal the victory.
“We were pretty shocked. I felt like we kind of let our foot off of the gas toward the end and it almost cost us,” Key said. “But when we needed to, we stiffened and made the play.”
QB CHANGE: Nick Fitzgerald, whose 195 yards on the ground against South Carolina a week earlier set a school record for QB rushing, struggled against LSU. He was held to 13 yards rushing and completed 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards. Fitzgerald was forced to the sideline for at least a play when his helmet popped off in the fourth quarter. Williams came on and converted a fourth-and-4 play with a 24-yard pass to Donald Gray, setting up MSU’s first TD on Williams’ 1-yard run.
Two plays after MSU’s onside kick recovery at the LSU 32, Williams hit Fred Ross for a 7-yard touchdown.
“We were in our two-minute offense so we didn’t want to sub him out,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “He looked like he was hot so we just kept going.”
Mullen, added, however, that Fitzgerald will remain the starter going forward.
Fournette raced through a big hole into the open field for his 25-yard TD that made it 20-0, and the Tigers led 23-3 at halftime.
A spate of apparently minor injuries forced LSU to play eight offensive lineman, with center Ethan Pocic switching to tackle.
“When stuff like that happens, it’s not going to be perfect, but I thought we played physical, Pocic said. “We were ready.”
Four linemen limped off the field at various times: guards Josh Boutte and Will Clapp, as well as tackles Toby Weathersby and K.J. Malone
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs relatively youthful and inexperienced squad needs a little more maturity to beat the top teams in the SEC.
LSU: Fournette is fine, the Tigers’ running game is finding its rhythm and Etling is getting more comfortable leading the offense as LSU begins to build momentum.
LSU: The Tigers were favored by about two TDs over Mississippi State, so a close victory won’t help them climb much higher in the AP Top 25 Poll.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs travel up to New England to visit Massachusetts next Saturday.
LSU: The Tigers head to the plains of eastern Alabama next Saturday to visit their namesake SEC West rivals, the Auburn Tigers.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org