JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mississippi State football records were broken all over Jacksonville on New Year’s Day.
The 21st-ranked Bulldogs won its first game to open up a calendar year since a 1941 Orange Bowl victory and in a dominating 52-14 fashion over a clearly overmatched Michigan team at Everbank Field.
“That was fantastic,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said as he sat down at the post-game podium. “I've been involved in some big games and this is one of the biggest. This is such an accomplishment."
Mississippi State (9-4) set a record for points in the 66-year history of the Gator Bowl passing Oklahoma’s mark of 48 in 1991. The Bulldogs lit up the scoreboard for more points and the biggest loss for Michigan (7-6) in any of their previous 40 bowl appearances.
Conversely, it was the largest margin of victory for State in a bowl game topping the previous pair of 10-point victories by four touchdowns.
“We knew they could score and score fast," senior center J.C. Brignone said. "We just had to control the ball for awhile, put our foot on the pedal and crush their throat.”
Two days after receiving a new four-year contract worth a total of $10.6 million, Mullen thanked the State fans that made up a large majority of the announced attendance of 68,325, who stayed after the win.
“I think this is the beginning of what will be bringing back to the state of Mississippi,” Mullen said.
The MSU point total was the most scored in the school’s 14 bowl appearances and the most scored against a Football Subdivision (previously called Division I-A) opponent since a 66-22 win over Tulane in 1994 at Starkville.
“The 2010 football team left their legacy on the season,” Mullen said. “Tomorrow the 2011 team will be born."
Mississippi State junior quarterback Chris Relf was named the Most Valuable Player of the contest after accounting for 311 total yards and four touchdowns with most of them coming via the passing game, finishing 18-of-23 for 281 yards.
Relf was selected to wear the No. 36 jersey in honor of fallen teammate Nick Bell that passed away in October after a form of skin cancer spread through his entire body. MSU officials confirmed Bell’s mother Linda watched the game in Jacksonville Saturday.
“The night before the Arkansas game, I had a dream that Nick Bell shook my hand and said I'd be OK,” Relf said. “I felt like he was there with me the whole time.”
Relf’s check-down pass to redshirt freshman tailback LaDarius Perkins that would eventually go for 81 yards, after a brutal block downfield from sophomore receiver Brandon Heavens, was Mississippi State’s longest play from scrimmage of the season.
Relf, a native Montgomery, Ala., became the second MSU quarterback to throw for over 200 yards in a bowl game since Greg Plump threw for 287 in the 1993 Peach Bowl.
The pass play led to a touchdown run on the very next play to put MSU up 45-14 entering the final quarter of the contest and began the ESPN2 commentators speculation on who would be the next head football coach at the University of Michigan.
Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has been marred by weeks of speculation as to his job security, said at the postgame interviews he doesn't know when he'll meet with Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon about his future.
“You’re asking the wrong person – I do,” Rodriguez said when asked if he thought he would return for the 2011 season. “I knew it was the elephant in the room during every one of our meetings.”
MSU junior tailback Vick Ballard finished the game with what seemed like a pedestrian 76 yards on 19 carries but his three touchdowns gave him the school record for rushing scores in a single season with 19 that was last set by Jackie Parker in 1952.
The junior-college transfer from Gulf Coast Community College had scores from 2, 1 and 7 yards out along with leading State’s rushing attack that accounted for a physically overwhelming 204 yards on the ground as a team.
“I saw (the record) when I was around 14 and knew what it was so it’s a honor,” Ballard said. “My goal coming into the season was around 12 so I guess I overachieved even what I thought I could do.”
While Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s numbers (313 total yards) appear astounding as a total, Mississippi State’s defense held him to 164 yards of total offense after the first quarter and just 5 yards rushing after that opening 15 minutes of play.
“We're a big and physical defense," MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "Michigan asks a lot of questions of you and you better have all the answers."
Robinson marched the Wolverines down the field on the game’s opening drive for a 78-yard drive over just 10 plays that ends with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree down the middle of the end zone where the sophomore receiver was wide open after Robinson’s play-action fake.
The Wolverines sophomore quarterback had runs of 24 and 22 during the scoring drive to soften up the Bulldogs shell-shocked defense.
From that point on, Michigan’s offense failed to keep a drive alive on one of its next eight third down plays.
“I knew from watching film they were real predictable with what they were doing,” MSU senior linebacker K.J. Wright said. “I just looked at formation and before the ball was snapped, Chris (White) and I knew what they were doing.”
The victory in State’s first ever appearance at the Gator Bowl represented its fourth straight postseason win dating back to the 1999 Gator Bowl and improved its bowl record to 8-6.
“I told our guys it’s a good thing in your life to be credited as an overachiever – that means as an individual you achieved more than anybody else thought possible,” Mullen said. “I’m sure coming into this season there’s a lot of people that wouldn’t believe that we’d win nine games and a New Year’s Day bowl game.”