Three plays after the Bulldogs recovered Devrin Young's forced fumble at the Volunteer 30-yard line, RB LaDarius Perkins squirmed across the goal line from a yard out for a 34-24 margin which would keep Mississippi State in control. There was much remaining drama with touchdowns by both teams, including a Bulldog back-breaker at nine ticks remaining. Still the 41-31 final margin was almost assured with and after that timely turnover.
"We knew we had to play four quarters, and I think we did that tonight," said QB Tyler Russell, whose gutsy fourth-quarter throws on a 12-snap series meant Tennessee never had a final comeback chance after making it 34-31. "At times we didn't do as well as we needed to do but when we needed to make plays we made plays. And that's what I'm proud of our team for doing."
There was much for Mississippi State to be proud of, not least their 6-0 record sealing bowl eligibility at half-way point of the schedule. And the 3-0 SEC mark, like the overall record best by a Bulldog team since1999. The third-largest crowd ever at Davis Wade Stadium, some 57,831 counted, watched the late evening show in raucous appreciation too.
"It feels good," said TE Marcus Green, who caught six of Russell's 23 completions with a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter. "We worked so hard for it, and we deserve it. We knew if we came out and executed, which we did, it would be a great night."
"Hoo, that was a heck of a ball game," said Mullen. "We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle all the way through. Especially the offensive firepower they had. I'm proud of how our guys played."
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) did have firepower. They mustered 361 total yards and averaged 6.2 per snap. But most of their best shots came in the last half, after the Bulldogs had built a 27-14 intermission lead thanks to a really explosive first half. State staggered the Vols for two periods with 293 yards, held the ball almost 23 of the 30 minutes, and just about dominated. In fact, only a 97-yard kickoff return for touchdown by Cordarrelle Patterson and a missed MSU field goal kept it a competitive game at the break.
"We came out and played a great first half, on both sides of the ball," Mullen said. "We had a letdown in the kicking game but made up for it, we made a big play in the kicking game as well in the first half." He meant a short pop-up kickoff after State had taken a 20-14 lead on Devon Bell's second field goal, recovered by CB Taveze Calhoun. State turned that gamble into a seven, too, for the big halftime bulge. "I thought we played a great first half," Mullen said.
No one more so than Russell. Matched against a much more touted counterpart, UT's Tyler Bray, the Bulldog was superb on the home field. He completed 16 of his first 19 throws for 199 yards in just the first half, with a seven-yard scoring strike to Green at 7:46 of the half. Russell would finish with a career-best 291 yards on 23-of-37 throwing with no interceptions and the two scores, each to tight ends.
For that matter the other MSU touchdown tossed also went to Green, but it was a shocker of sorts. Backup QB Dak Prescott, noted most for his footwork, found Green from 13 yards out at 14:17 of the second quarter when the Vols were absolutely playing the run. His perfect play-action let Green go unnoticed into the end zone for a 17-7 lead at the time.
Green had 71 yards for his two touchdowns. "The first one they kind of lost me in coverage and Dak found me. The second one, play-action, they kind of lost me and Tyler found me!"
"With the offensive line blocking as well as they have, our receivers getting open it just comes down to me putting the ball in the right position," Russell said. "And I did that tonight." Between the two quarterbacks State threw for 308 yards and three scores, again without a turnover.
Nor was the ground game unrepresented. After Tennessee grabbed a brief and only lead of 7-3 at 8:51 of The Opening quarter, Russell directed a 65-yard drive keyed by a remarkable 3rd-and-18 conversoin throw to WR Chris Smith. Another, shorter third down at UT's 24 was also converted by FB Adrian Marcus' five yard catch, meaning the drive didn't have to settle for three points. Backup RB Josh Robinson put his team back ahead with a 10-yard carry, starting left before noting a crease and cut-back for the unobstructed dash into the end zone at 3:09.
State never trailed again and was this close to nailing the night down after Prescott hit Green to start the second quarter. Patterson's return meant it would stay a game, though Russell did drive the offense for Bell's second three-pointer in response.
Bray only had 58 passing yards on 6-of-12 throwing for the first half. He also gave up the game's first turnover with a late-quarter heave SS Corey Broomfield got in front of for the interception. The key though wasn't Bray's problems but lack of chances as State had 49 first-half snaps to Tennessee's 20. "We knew they had an explosive offense, we had to create three-and-outs, create turnovers," Banks said. "We did that well and they couldn't get in a rhythm like they wanted to. And we won the football game." But not without a hard second half's work. Tennessee had first turn and looked like a different club with a 62-yard drive for a field goal. When State went three-and-out, the Vols did even better on the second chance. With hard running by Young balanced by Bray's perfect second-down strikes Tennessee went 86 yards in 15 grinding plays. Patterson had the 11-yard touchdown catch at 4:07 for the 27-24 margin.
And, the Vols got the ball back quickly again. This time though the Dog defense made the plays after giving up a single move of chains. Bray was rushed into a throw Young couldn't quite handle and, at the MSU 42-yard line, Bray himself pooched the short punt. The next Tennessee series lasted just three plays, and the next…was the turning turnover.
"They had something going for them right there and Coach (Chris) Wilson made some changes on defense and we stopped it," Banks said. The offense returned to life too, with a 25-yard throw to WR Chad Bumphis sparking the short touchdown drive for a 10-point lead. State helped the Vols out on the kickoff, dribbling it short first and face-masking on the tackle to boot. Bray only had to lead a 58-yard drive finished on his 10-yard lob to Ben Bartholomew in back of the end zone for the 34-31 margin.
But Russell regained his first-half form while Perkins pounded the ball around or even over UT tacklers. The key was a 3rd-and-7 at State's 39 which, after a Vol timeout, Russell read the defense and called a pass play on his own volition. "Yeah, that play across the middle, Coach didn't call that all. Me and Chad were just on the same page. He gave it to me and I trusted it, I had some time and just made the throw and he caught it!"
The ten-yard connection was followed by a second-down Russell scramble and sidearm-sling to Bumphis again good for 23 yards. Perkins caught Tennessee gassed and gashed for 15 yards to the eight. UT used the last timeout at 1:50 and State called one at 0:14 on the nine-yard line with fourth down. A snap and scramble would likely have burned off enough time to make a last-chance unworkable…but Russell wanted to be certain.
"Coach said if it's open, throw it; if it's not don't force it. Right there I gave him a chance, either he (Johnson) was going to catch it or nobody was going to catch it. He caught it." And somehow Johnson also got a foot down in fair ground for the touchdown and margin of victory.
"We came out and stumbled around the second half a bunch," Mullen said. "But as we've done all year, when we needed it we made plays. We made plays in the kicking game when we needed it with big punts. We made big plays on defense when we needed it, creating a turnover. And we made plays on offense when we needed it on that final drive to put the game away."
State finished with 450 yards and a 13-minute edge in possession time built in that furious first half. Perkins topped the century with 101 yards and got his seventh touchdown of the season. Bumphis led with seven catches for 93 yards while Clark and Smith had three grabs each.
Bray was held to a career-starter low of 148 yards, 13-of-24 with two touchdowns against the interception. The SEC's most respected passer had been thoroughly outplayed by the cool-headed Russell. "A heck of a game by Tyler," Mullen said. "He made good decisions for us, made the plays when we needed to. We were telling him you've got to manage the game."
Winning it took the big defensive stands though. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Cameron Lawrence were busy Dogs with 14 and 10 tackles apiece. And while Bray was never sacked there was just enough pressure and sound coverage to keep Tennessee's air game under control, enough. Vol linebacker A.J. Johnson was the big-numbers man of the night with 21 credited tackles, 17 of them assists.
Banks described the Bulldog locker room as "ridiculous" in delight at this SEC success. "It's the biggest win probably since I've been here. The biggest win," he insisted. "This is a game we'd been looking toward since we found out we were playing Tennessee in the spring I guess. I think we got ready for this game all year. All spring, all fall. We got ready and went and played football."
Winning football at that. Now that they have locked up bowling stature, the Bulldogs can focus on not merely improving their post-season status. They remain unbeaten in league play and even atop the Western Division with #1-ranked Alabama, with their meeting two weeks away in Tuscaloosa.
Fans and media were already discussing the looming showdown. But OG Tobias Smith hadn't lost his focus. "I think we play Middle Tennessee next week and I don't really know who after that!" he smiled.