The difference between winning and losing, both game and season, was Ballard. The senior tailback, who had dominated Mississippi State's rout of Ole Miss a month ago with 144 yards and two touchdowns, was even better in his final college appearance. Ballard compiled 180 yards on 14 carries, and if his last three totes hadn't been dives into the middle to use up Deacon timeouts and some clock his total and average would both have looked better.
It was all good enough for Ballard, named bowl Most Valuable Player for his exploits. Especially so considering how poorly his evening began. Through the first four offensive series Ballard had three carries for two yards, a false start penalty, and worst of all a fumble to set up a Wake Forest touchdown. Not quite how one of Mississippi State's all-time great runners had planned to start his last game.
"I didn't let it get to me, I just knew I had to step up and make plays," Ballard said. "So that's what I did."
Did he ever. Just three snaps after falling behind 7-0, Ballard tied it up. On 3rd-and-3 at the Bulldog 40-yard line he took the handoff-right, cut inside a sealing block by WR Chris Smith, and was gone for the first Bulldog touchdown at 3:04. By halftime Ballard was already at 73 yards on six rushes. Then as the fourth quarter began, with State trying to hold a 16-14 lead, it was Ballard with the clincher.
Having moved the chains with a five-yard dive on second down, he somehow squirmed through traffic and slashed down the right sideline. A couple of Deacons had late shots to prevent the touchdown but Ballard felt them coming and angled inward just enough to make the goal line at 12:53.
As outstanding as those two big blasts were, Ballard's post-game description wasn't much help. "To tell the truth I don't even remember how I got there!" he said. "But I know ten other guys had to do their job. I just found a crease and hit it."
One of them had a better perspective than most. "Vick is a great runner and deserved MVP tonight," said QB Chris Relf, who was MVP of last year's Gator Bowl win.
Not that there weren't other worthy candidates. Including Relf, who accounted for the other State touchdown on a 31-yard throw to WR Arceto Clark in the second quarter for a lead his team never lost. In his final game the senior quarterback was 12-of-19 for 129 yards, though with two throws intercepted as well. Relf ran for 64 yards, with a 27-yard bolt that was his longest rush of the season.
Despite a final edge in yardage of 382 to 287, and a rather remarkable 6.5 to 3.3 advantage in gains per-snap, it was not a great night for State's offense in most respects. Which meant other MVP candidates worked with other units. Such as P Baker Swedenburg with his 41.2 yard average and high hang time. Or more notably DT Fletcher Cox. Not just for his seven tackles, two for losses, a sack, and two passes deflected.
Cox was responsible for what might have been the game's changing moment. With a 7-7 tie in the second quarter Wake Forest had driven to the Bulldog 13-yard line, then faced 4th-and-8 at the 17. It looked like an easy 33-yard field goal for the lead, but Cox came through for the clean block.
"I just keyed the ball and got off it, and then worried about blocking the kick once I got back there," he said. It was no worry at all as he put both hands on the ball. CB Johnthan Banks recovered it for a 13-yard return. Relf used the huge swing in momentum for his 27-yard dash up the middle, then with the Deacons looking for another keeper used play-action to freeze coverage while Clark tore up the left side uncovered.
"I saw ‘Ceto give a good move and went upfield, it was man-to-man coverage and one safety in the middle of the field," Relf said. "And I just threw it up. Arceto made a great catch." In the end zone at that. The downside was a missed PAT by K Derek DePasquale, which would be worrisome as the game continued.
DePasquale did convert on a 33-yard field goal of his own at 5:44 of the second quarter for the 16-7 lead, and ought to have had another chip shot before halftime. State was able to get the ball back at 1:39 and at the 40-yard line as WR Chad Bumphis was hit too soon fielding the Deacon punt. But Coach Dan Mullen had lost a timeout challenging a spot after a questionable spot had given Wake Forest a first down on the prior series.
It mattered as Relf found TE Malcolm Johnson for a catch-and-dash worth 37 yards to the Deacon 11 with just 0:14 left in the half. At 0:06 State spurned an easy field goal, only to have Relf's throw towards Bumphis on the back line intercepted by Duran Lowe. Giving away the easy points loomed larger when Wake Forest opened the third quarter with a 64-yard touchdown drive, capped by a one-yard drive from Tommy Bohanon at 11:00.
Worse, Relf was intercepted by Merrill Noel at the goal line on the next series, though it was hardly his fault. Wideouts Clark and Smith both batted the throw around before it ended up in Noel's surprised hands.
"Very rarely are you going to be minus-4 in turnover ratio and win," Mullen said. "At times we were finding ways to lose the game. But everybody stuck to the gameplan, did their job, and found a way to come out with the victory."
It was the defense finding ways, stopping Wake Forest on their next three series until Ballard could break his biggest one for the nine-point lead. The Deacons controlled the ball almost all the fourth period but with only a field goal at 3:27 to show for it. Twice S Wade Bonner made clutch covers of top Deacon target Michael Companaro, one of them on a heave into the end zone and immediately after on a fourth-down force over the middle.
"At some key times we got some pressure and were able to get off the field defensively," Mullen said. "At the end we give up two 13-play drives, but give them credit, they were making all those plays."
After Ballard made Wake Forest use their remaining timeouts on rushes, the defense put enough pressure on Tanner Price for four incompletions. Then it was just a matter of Relf kneeling three times, aided by a Deacon off-sides penalty on third down that guaranteed the clock would run out.
"We were sloppy at some times, we were good at some times," Mullen said. "But we made the plays we needed to make in the end. Our guys stepped up when they needed to step up."
State's defense mostly shut down the Wake Forest ground game, allowing just 63 net yards on 38 carries. Brandon Pendergrass had 73 yards on 24 totes with their first touchdown, on a 14-yard dash at 4:24 of the opening quarter. But Price lost 24 yards on eight rushes, getting sacked no less than six times by a State team with just 21 sacks all regular season.
Price had to throw it 46 times, completing 24 for 214 yards and no scores. Campanaro caught ten of those balls for 128 yards and Chris Givens nine more for 54 yards.
"We stuck to our gameplan," said S Charles Mitchell. "We wanted to be real physical with these guys and I thought we did a good job. They did a great job doing what they do best, protecting the ball. The main thing was we wanted to be physical. It wasn't about them, it was about us being able to do our job and fly around for sixty minutes."
Whereas his 2010 team had routed Michigan 52-14 for an easy bowl victory, the second for Mullen—who became the first MSU coach ever to begin a tenure 2-0 in post-season play—came much harder. But that wasn't a problem at all for the coach. Not even after the out-of-synch opening. "No one panicked," said Mullen. "Everybody stuck to the gameplan and found a way to win."
The main thing, Mullen said, was taking another trophy home and putting another winning record in the books. More was expected of a team that began the season with a top-twenty ranking, then had to scramble to earn bowl eligibility and win that one to finish over .500. But looking big picture, the coach was content.
"To me it's a great season. To finish with a third-straight Egg Bowl victory, and a second bowl victory, a winning record, to me that's a successful season. The lasting legacy of the 2011 football team is walking out as champions."
And none was happier to exit a winner than Ballard, having held his best days for the last two dates in his college career. Not that he was thinking of himself afterwards, or even being named most valuable player in the most meaningful win.
"It's big, it's big for the team and for Mississippi State University. We go out with a winning season and in a big bowl game."