By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen still believes he has a good football team, even though the reality of a 0-4 Southeastern Conference record was a stinging blow to the Bulldogs after a 14-12 loss to No. 15 South Carolina on Saturday.
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, who stretched his 6-foot-4 frame over two Mississippi State defenders for the game-winning touchdown with 3:50 remaining in the fourth quarter.
When the three players jumped for the ball, Jeffery was simply the tallest and best athlete, plucking the ball from the sky with 3:50 remaining to lead South Carolina (6-1, 4-1 SEC) to the win.
It was a bitter ending after it looked as if Mississippi State (3-4, 0-4) might be able to pull off the upset. The Bulldogs never trailed until Jeffery’s catch.
“We’re not that far off from where we want to be,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “That final step is a tough one.”
In his third career start, Shaw struggled for much of the afternoon. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 155 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed for 28 yards on 16 carries.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore came into the game averaging an SEC-best 129.8 rushing yards per game, but managed only 39 yards and a touchdown against the hard-hitting Bulldogs. He left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury that could make the Gamecocks’ victory a lot less sweet.
Spurrier said he was told Lattimore’s injury is a sprained knee, though a full evaluation hadn’t been done.
Mississippi State was driving late in the game, but Tyler Russell’s pass was intercepted by D.J. Swearinger with 1:45 remaining. From that point, the Gamecocks were able to run out the clock, and Shaw ran out the back of the end zone on the final play for a Mississippi State safety.
“We needed to make one more play,” Mullen said. “When you play top-15 teams you’ve got to make a lot of plays. They made one more play than we did.”
The low scoring was caused by a mix of dominating defense and missed opportunities on offense.
South Carolina and Mississippi State started inexperienced quarterbacks, and it showed for much of the afternoon.
The Gamecocks played their first game without senior Stephen Garcia, whose suspension-riddled career ended abruptly after Spurrier dismissed him from the team earlier in the week. Shaw replaced Garcia last week before the dismissal, throwing four touchdowns against Kentucky in a dominating win.
Mississippi State’s defense proved a much more difficult challenge. The Bulldogs were especially good along the defensive line, with Fletcher Cox making four tackles for a loss, including two sacks.
The Gamecocks had chances to score in the first half, but Shaw threw two interceptions, including one that was caught in the end zone by Johnthan Banks and another that was caught right at the goal line by Nickoe Whitley.
But Shaw came up big when it mattered, throwing the ball where only Jeffery could catch it. The Gamecocks’ leading receiver had been quiet up until that point and finished with five catches for 24 yards.
Jeffery’s catch came on a rare third down conversion. The Gamecocks were just 2 of 14 before Jeffery’s touchdown catch quieted the crowd at Davis Wade Stadium.
“We kept trying to run for those third downs,” Spurrier said. “I guess we should have been passing on them.”
South Carolina has won six straight against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen falls to 2-11 against ranked teams in his three-year tenure.
MSU’s Russell earned his first start at quarterback, replacing struggling senior Chris Relf. The sophomore threw a 19-yard touchdown to Chris Smith late in the first quarter to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead. He had some good moments, but struggled with his accuracy against a swarming South Carolina defense, completing 11 of 29 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
He led the Bulldogs down the field late in the fourth quarter, but his pass was picked off by Swearinger, a safety who flew across the field. Swearinger led South Carolina with 12 tackles.
Mississippi State outgained South Carolina 296-289. Vick Ballard rushed for 67 yards on 20 carries. LaDarius Perkins added 46 rushing yards on nine carries.
“I did not play well enough today,” Russell said. “Sometimes I made the play and sometimes I did not.”
Follow David Brandt at: twitter.com/davidbrandtAP
More in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.