NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Mississippi State Bulldogs were dancing in Music City on Friday night as they were celebrating State’s 23–17 victory over Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Senior Vick Ballard earned Most Valuable Player honors as he carried his team with his 180-yard, two-touchdown effort. It was a 72-yard gallop with 12:54 remaining in the fourth quarter that gave the Bulldogs breathing room and proved to be the game winning score.
The first half opened in rather sluggish fashion as both teams traded a pair of three and outs before Mississippi State surrendered the lead following a Ballard fumble deep in their own territory. Brandon Pendergrass scored on a 14-yard run over the left side taking a 7-0 lead after the extra point.
However the lead was short lived as Ballard, who turned in his 10th 100-yard performance of his career, struck from 60 yards out on third and 3 to tie the game at 7-7.
“I knew we were going to be OK,” said MSU senior quarterback Chris Relf of the slow start. “I think we had the better team, no offense to Wake Forest. We just struggled a little bit in the first half and then came out strong in the second half and got the victory.”
The Bulldogs improved their record to 7-6 and secured a winning season, while the Deacons slipped to 6-7.
State’s special team then took center stage with Fletcher Cox blocking a 33-yard field goal attempt as he bulldozed the defender and set the table for the next Bulldog strike.
“Oh, it was huge,” said Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, who earned his second consecutive bowl win with the Bulldogs. “You know, it allowed us to capitalize on the momentum, go get the quick score afterwards, swing the momentum our way, and take a big lead in at halftime.”
Cox was just glad he got to the football.
“I just keyed the ball and worried about blocking the kick once I got back there,” said Cox. “I kinda figured the trajectory on a long field goal has got to be kinda low so I was just full attack.”
Relf and the offense wasted no time when on their next possession Relf gained 27 yards on first down, his longest rush of the season, and on second down, he hit Arceto Clark for a 31-yard scoring strike to extend the lead to 13-7. Derek DePasquale missed his first extra point of the season and the score remained a six-point MSU advantage.
DePasquale redeemed himself on State’s third consecutive scoring drive with a 33-yard field goal to push the lead to 16–7.
Mississippi State threatened on their final possession of the half until Relf threw an interception in the end zone with 1 second remaining before the half.
The Bulldogs took a 16-7 lead into the locker room holding the Deacons to just 129 yards of total offense while amassing 249 yards of offense of their own. Despite the statistical dominance, the three turnovers simply left Mullen relieved to have the lead.
“We did a lot of things that can get you beat in the first half,” he stated.
The Demon Deacons made adjustments at the half and marched down the field on an eight-play, 64-yard drive that ended on a 1-yard plunge from Tommy Bohanon to draw within two points at 16-14.
“You know we turned the ball over right at the end of the first half, and then they start the second half with a touchdown," Mullen said. "That was another momentum swing. You know, these games when you have two great programs playing each other, you’re going to have momentum swings constantly. Fortunately, we rode the last momentum to get the stop there at the end.”
On State’s first possession of the fourth quarter, it quickly added some breathing room with a three-play drive capped by a 72-yard Ballard run, the second longest of his career.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember (how I scored),” said Ballard with a smile. “I don’t remember how I got there, but I know 10 other guys had to do their job. I just found the crease and hit it.”
The focus then turned to the defense as it was asked to continue to pressure Wake Forest. Josh Boyd, Fletcher Cox and Sean Ferguson combined for three of State’s sacks and four of the team’s 12 tackles for loss.
“We stuck to our gameplan,” said senior safety Charles Mitchell. “We wanted to be real physical with these guys. I think we did a pretty good job with that. It wasn’t ever about any of those guys, it was about us doing our job being able to fly around all night and play all 60 minutes.”
And it took all 60 minutes of effort as the game wasn’t decided until the fourth down pass from Tanner Price fell harmlessly to the turf with 1:41 remaining.
The Bulldogs began to execute the victory formation and sent the 17 seniors out as Music City Bowl Champions.