By LEE ADAMS
The next step eluded the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday.
The Bulldogs believe they are just a step away from winning close games like the one against the South Carolina Gamecocks, but it didn't happen after losing a 14-12 decision at Davis Wade Stadium.
"We're not that far off from where we want to be," said third-year MSU head coach Dan Mullen. "That final step is a tough one, but we have to take that final step to get over the hump and become a top 10 or top 15 team."
The loss is State's fourth Southeastern Conference loss, but they are showing signs of improvement every week, but that's not good enough for senior running back Vick Ballard.
"It's always good to make improvements, but we have to take the next step." said Ballard, who ran for 67 yards on 20 carries. "It's hard but we have to make the leap."
One change that appeared to help the Bulldogs make a step in the direction they are wanting to go, was naming Tyler Russell starting quarterback after his performance in last week's win and out-practicing Chris Relf.
With Russell ender center, State held the lead twice on Saturday and scoring the only points in the first quarter when he connected with former high school teammate Chris Wilson from 19 yards out.
The Gamecocks tied the game in the second quarter on a 4-yard touchdown run by Marcus Lattimore. South Carolina had two more opportunities to score in the second quarter, but the Bulldog defense stepped up with two interceptions by former East Webster player Johnthan Banks and Nickoe Whitley. The interceptions came on third downs and kept the game tied at 7-7 going into halftime.
After an uneventful third quarter, MSU finally broke the stalemate when Derek DePasquale made a 22-yard field goal. DePasquale missed two field goals in the game which could have given the Bulldogs a bigger lead, but they led 10-7 with 9:50 left in the game.
MSU's defense had pretty much shut down the Gamecock's powerful offense, but with just under 4 minutes left in the game, Alshon Jeffery made a leaping catch in the end zone over Corey Broomfield to give South Carolina the 14-10 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Russell led the Bulldogs down into South Carolina territory and they appeared to be driving for the win. However, Russell was hit while trying to complete a pass to Arceto Clark and the throw was short, allowing a Gamecock defender to intercept the pass and end the scoring threat.
Russell said he didn't remember if his arm was hit while throwing, but he was getting hit for most of the game so there is a chance that was the case.
The Gamecocks ran the clock out by taking a safety on fourth down and picked up the win.
Russell finished the day 11-for-29 for 165 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
His second interception is the most memorable of the two, but Mullen sees thing being different in the future.
"He'll learn and he'll get better," said Mullen. "It was a good learning experience to be in that situation, making that throw and I see us making that throw as we continue."
Russell wasn't the story of the day for the Bulldogs as their defense held Marcus Lattimore to only 39 rushing yards on 17 carries. Lattimore was also injured late in the game and South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said they could be without him for a while. MSU's defense also held Jeffery to only 24 yards on five catches, but there is one catch it wants back and that's his game winning jump ball in the fourth quarter.
However, Mullen was proud of the defense and what the did on Saturday.
"I thought we played well," said Mullen. "You hold a back like Marcus Lattimore to 39 yards rushing and that's a pretty good day. With the talent that team has, I think our guys overall did really well throughout the course of the game."
Junior defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, who had some key tackles in the game, agrees with his head coach but wants to take the next step.
"Overall, we did a good job, but obviously we have to get better," said Cox. "We get better week after week but we have to keep improving."
The Bulldogs drop to 3-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC, will have next week off, before they travel to Kentucky the following week still in search of their first conference win.