Call Saturday night’s performance anything you wish.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen used one to describe it: win.
The uneasy feeling that was felt by many of the announced attendance of 56,423 at Davis-Wade Stadium was consistent during the Bulldogs 29-24 victory over Alabama-Birmingham.
“I think last year there would be some guys that would look around to the sidelines and maybe find a way to lose that game,” Mullen said.
What will go down as State’s sixth win of the season, which makes the program bowl eligible for the first time since 2007, required a fourth-quarter comeback drive that ended with a 39-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale and a fortunate special teams play late in the game to achieve a feeling of relief.
“I thought what our kids learned tonight more than anything was dealing with expectations,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “I told them tonight that we were up by three after three quarters last week – why does it feel different?”
After taking a 24-23 lead with 10 minutes left in the game, UAB (2-5) committed a personal foul penalty on its pop-up kickoff that placed the ball on their own 42-yard-line. State’s offense, which inconsistently sputtered all evening, then went only 20 yards on eight plays to take the lead off DePasquale’s right foot for the rest of the evening.
DePasquale, a transfer from the Colorado School of the Mines, became the first kicker since Brian Hazelwood in 1998 to tie a school record with five field goals in a contest.
“I’ve changed a lot of things up and I was told I was starting Friday I was excited about implementing those changes in a game,” DePasquale said. “The mental part is trying to figure out what you’re doing because you have no coach. You got to coach yourself.”
The junior, who is now 15-of-20 in MSU career, iced the victory with a 28-yard field goal with 1:48 left after Mississippi State burned nearly 4 minutes off the game clock.
State’s sixth victory and bowl eligibility were guaranteed on the ensuing kickoff when a pair of local products got together as freshman Michael Carr, a four-star recruit from West Point High School, stripped Starkville native Pat Shed on the return and the ball was eventually recovered by Nickoe Whitley.
“Our kickoff team ran on the field and Nickoe Whitley said to his team ‘believe in yourself to go make a play to win the game’,” Mullen said. “That’s exactly what he did.”
Carr finished with 23 yards off the first two carries of his Mississippi State career after not touching the football for the first seven weeks.
In a game where Mullen accused his team of “coming out flat,” UAB more than doubled Mississippi State’s offensive output in the first half 207-103 but both schools left for the halftime locker room tied at 10 due to the State defense producing an impressive red-zone stand and the second fumble recovery on a punt by long snapper Aaron Feld.
Feld, a senior from Homewood, Ala., used the post-game celebration to propose and get an engagement from his girlfriend Blakely Bailey at midfield.
“I did it in a private restaurant just in case I got a no,” Mullen joked. “Doing it in front of 56,000 people or something that’s a little scary.”
The only reliable source of offense for Mississippi State (6-2) came in the form of red-shirt freshman tailback LaDarius Perkins. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound speedster ended the night with a career-high 131 yards on 18 carries with a 4-yard touchdown catch off a first-quarter shovel pass from junior quarterback Chris Relf.
Relf had some big plays in the passing game but with the Blazers defense walking eight and nine guys up to the line of scrimmage the junior from Montgomery, Ala., was only able to completed 8-of-19 passes for 107 yards.
“We hits some shots down the field, missed some shots down the field but we need to get better – we need to get a lot better,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State entered the game with five starters from the 2010 season-opener (wide receiver Leon Berry, tailback Vick Ballard, center J.C. Brignone, guard Tobias Smith and tight end Marcus Green) on the sidelines with various injuries. Mullen mentioned that lack of cohesion as a major reason for the slow start that led to the close margin of victory.
With the win, State not only becomes bowl eligible before the calendar flips to November but also goes undefeated in non-conference play for the first time since 2000. The Bulldogs win streak has now reached five, the most since opening the 1999 season with a 8-0 record.
“I said (to the team) we just earned ourselves one more game,” Mullen said. “One goal is that we improved off last season’s win total. There’s a lot of things this team wants to continue to achieve.”
UAB’s high-powered offense, that came into Starkville averaging over 406 total yards per game ate up a depleted MSU secondary missing backups Damien Anderson (undisclosed injury) and Dennis Thames to the tune of 236 yards passing from the right arm of Blazers junior signal caller Bryan Ellis.
“I think we have a pretty good offensive team," Ellis said. "We made too many mistakes which killed us. We just didn't get the job done tonight."
Ellis hit eight different receivers throughout Saturday night but was constantly under pressure from the Mississippi State pass rush as Diaz dialed up blitzes for a total of 10 quarterback pressures and two sacks.
Mississippi State returns to Southeastern Conference action with a home game next Saturday against a Kentucky (4-4, 1-4) team that just lost to Georgia 44-14.