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Spartan secondary stumbles, exploited by McCown, Bulldogs

September 15, 2003

The MSU secondary played well for 57 minutes, but the final three will tarnish its reputation for good.

Sophomores Ashton Watson and Carlos Alexander could only hide their heads in shame as they watched a sure win slip out of their hands when D.J. Curry caught the winning touchdown in front of them with two seconds remaining.

The play completed a Bulldogs comeback from a 19-7 Spartans lead with little more than one minute remaining to give Louisiana Tech a 20-19 win.

"It really hurts, and it definitely hurt every individual in that room," head coach John L. Smith said. "It's not going to be the first and it won't be the last for anyone in that room."

The result left Smith scratching his head, with eyes moist from the emotions of a meltdown, and dodging questions related to the future of his questionable secondary.

When asked about their struggle to find consistency, Smith was silent then said, "I was just floored by that last (question). I had to do a double-take."

The secondary produced three interceptions in the game, including one by Eric Smith, which he returned 59 yards before falling victim to MSU's continuing secondary jinx.

After being pushed out of bounds at the Bulldogs 32-yard line, Smith ran into the Bulldogs kicking net and injured his shoulder.

"Smitty getting hurt created some real problems," Smith said. "He just can't move his shoulder."

The other two interceptions went to junior cornerback Roderick Maples and freshman safety Greg Cooper.

But Maples also was beat on deep plays several times. Matching up against Bulldogs receiver Shawn Piper, he was beat for a 76-yard touchdown in the first quarter and an 80-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, which was called back after a Bulldogs' holding call penalty.

Piper had 10 catches for 171 yards in the game. Maples thought he had safety help deep on the plays, but the coverage help was nonexistent.

"A lot of it is communication and other times it was just missed assignments," Eric Smith said. "We were playing cover 2 and the safety on that side was getting stretched because the man was running right down the middle of the field and on the sidelines. That's the cover 2 beater. It's impossible to cover both."

The Spartans once again assaulted the opposing quarterback and running game, sacking Luke McCown three times while hurrying the quarterback and breaking up passes at the line several times.

Senior defensive end Greg Taplin had four pass breakups as while as a sack, while Matthias Askew added his fifth sack of the season.

But as the game went on, the defense tired and McCown got stronger, finishing with 436 yards on 35-of-61 passes and three touchdowns.

"We got some pressure on the quarterback, but they can't stay on the field all day," Eric Smith said. "We didn't put together anything offensively in the second half at all."

The Spartans changed their defensive backfield a little for the game, starting sophomore Darren Barnett over Watson. Freshman Greg Cooper also saw considerable time as a nickel back.

"It did feel good (to start)," Barnett said. "I was thinking this would happen for a while.

"It felt like defensively we controlled the game. I think we broke down physically because we were dead tired. We were out there most of the game and we broke down physically and mentally, which came back to haunt us."

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