For the career his 2,157 yards make Ballard #10 at State, but that is the second-most yards ever by a two-year Bulldog. Not bad for someone overlooked by SEC programs as a big runner at Pascagoula High School and who had to re-prove himself in junior college. Yes, he kept that in mind both seasons with State.
"Whenever you know you're as good as the other guys, and don't get the recognition, it makes you work harder," Ballard said.
Interestingly, had State really been trying to move the ball late instead of burn time and timeout; or had Ballard not dropped the ball in the first quarter, the bowl rushing record was within reach. He came up just three short of Walter Packer's 1974 output in the Sun Bowl.
The two touchdowns gave Ballard 29 rushing scores (he caught two TD passes along the way) for the second-most touchdowns on the ground ever at State. He set the single-season State record as a freshman with 19 rushing touchdowns, and made double-digits again in 2011 to bow-out. Or is it, hand off the ball to younger runners, who all were more highly-recruited than he? Not that name matters much once at this level, he said as sort of a benediction to his successors.
"You have to prove yourself every week in the SEC. They'll have to come in and scratch like I did." Now, if they should scratch out similar or even better results than Ballard did, that will be another story worth telling.
FARE WELL: The only emotion Ballard showed in post-game was mock-relief, when Coach Dan Mullen mentioned how he and fellow 2011 captain S Charles Mitchell were now free of strength coach Matt Balis. Maybe the relief wasn't all that mock, either.
One senior wasn't as shy showing the feelings that a long, hard haul is done. "Yeah, going out in style, going out with a win," said senior OG Quentin Saulsberry. "That's what we wanted to accomplished and my guys did that." Saulsberry wasn't kidding about the ‘style' bit as he looked sharpest of all Dogs leaving the locker room, in a light gray suit, blue shirt and natty pink tie.
It was Saulsberry's 49th and final start for State, and if the senior season didn't produce as many wins as did 2010 he wasn't complaining about how his last campaign ended. Nor was he hiding a sentimental streak afterwards.
"I was thinking about people that had been with me, some of the family members that I lost, some of the people that I lost, and some of the struggles I had. When you come out on top like that those emotions start rolling over you."
Now Saulsberry rolls on to his next life-phase. He naturally wants a NFL shot, but has already prepared for a career in law enforcement, even doing apprentice duty this past summer with the Starkville Police Department. Will he swap maroon-and-white for police blues-and-blacks again?
"I don't know when I'll put that uniform on, hopefully I can make it to the next level without putting a bullet-proof vest on! But if it comes down to it, Lord willing, I'll be ready."
Oh, and unlike Ballard…he will actually miss daily dealings with the notorious Balis. "That's one of the hardest-working strength coaches I've ever heard of. I wouldn't mind coming back and getting a workout with him."
NOT ACCORDING TO PLAN: If the game ended up as hoped, it absolutely did not begin as planned. The Bulldogs stumbled and fumbled through the first four series, falling behind 7-0 and just generally looking not ready for this game. Which surprised their coach.
"To turn the ball over and still be up so much, I was amazed at that," Dan Mullen admitted. With good reason, because the coach thought the week's practices and walk-throughs had been just fine. Then they began by letting the energy of a huge MSU crowd or the emotions of the moment, or whatever, get to them.
"Coach was saying get all the jitters out of you, and let's just go out there and play ball," Saulsberry related. Which they did, building a 16-7 halftime lead that ought to have been more. Maybe much more, if not for a missed PAT, two first-quarter fumbles, and a questionable call by his coach to ignore an easy field goal and go for a touchdown in the last seconds. The pass was intercepted instead.
"I figured I'd give you guys something to ask about!" he joked afterwards, saying that snapping the ball with six seconds left would at least run out the half with the nine-point lead intact. "So in theory it was a good decision, except for the interception part!" Mullen even showed a smiling face to the halftime cameras. Bravado?
"I was smiling because we'd done what we needed to do to stay in the ball game, when we had done enough things to be way behind in the game. So I was real happy about that." Brave face and jokes and all, Saulsberry said there was no levity in the locker room.
"No! We weren't laughing. We kept our poise, though. Coach had looked at other bowl games and turnovers were the key to a loss. But Coach (Chris) Wilson told us keep fighting, embrace these moments." Which State did sufficiently to take the win and finish with the winning record.
SACK-TASTIC: A Bulldog defense that had just 21 sacks in the regular season bagged Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price six times, for losses of 30 net yards. This was against a Demon Deacon team that had done well protecting their passer all season, not to mention a quick-triggered Price adept at unloading before the rush arrived.
"We had a plan going in, we knew we had to get to the quarterback," said DT Josh Boyd. "So we just dialed in our mind we were going to create the best pass rush we could. It kind of worked out for us."
But it could have worked out even better if not for some, errr, generous looks from the MAC officiating crew. As in, offensive holding was only assessed just once all evening, something much more in keeping with say the MWC refs. Boyd and DT Fletcher Cox were trying to shed such grasps each snap it seemed. No, not seemed, it was per Boyd.
"We just had to settle down and keep playing," he said. Though in the second quarter Boyd, trying so hard to get loose, reached for Price and—he admitted—got a bit of facemask in the process. "I was trying to get off a block and he came up so I just grabbed him. It happens!"
In the third quarter after a deep punt pinned Wake Forest near their goal Boyd did finally get through for one sack; and on the next play was so blatantly held around the neck a flag finally flew. "I was pretty happy about that one because I thought (the ref) was going to let it ride, he turned me all the way around!"
That sack was Boyd's 4.5th of the season, but his only credited tackle of the night. Cox ended up with seven total stops and a sack of his own. It allowed him to finish the season with 56 total tackles, edging his classmate with 51. But like every game, what one did reflected the other's work.
"We feed off each other a lot. We try to do competition and stuff and every time I see him make a play it just gets me more excited to make a play."
Boyd would be even more excited, along with MSU staff and fans, to hear that Cox would come back for a senior season. Both junior tackles have applied for NFL draft evaluations and some project Cox as having first-round potential. Boyd said he is "probably going to be back." But he won't pressure his partner either way.
"I wish, but ain't no telling what he's going to do. I'm going to support whatever decision he makes. I did that but I'm taking every day at a time." The official draft deadline is January 15. Junior CB Johnthan Banks is also considering early declaration.
REJECTED: Cox has shown a knack for getting a hand on placekicks through his career, having blocked three field goals and one PAT before his trip to Nashville. He made it five Friday night with the most impressive of his rejections to date.
Having driven as far as State's 13-yard line, the Deacons were forced to settle for a short field goal try. The kick went far shorter than intended because Cox roared through the middle for the stuffing, not all that that far off the foot in fact. And unlike previous one-handed blocks this was a two-hander. CB John Banks recovered for a 13-yard return.
Cox said the block was made possible by an earlier play that let him get a read on the blocker assigned to him. "I kind of felt him out the first time they scored, and then I kind of figured on the second, a long field goal, it had to be kind of low. So just go attack it."
And get it.
*Not everything about State special teams was positive. PK Derek DePasquale came into the last game of his career with the opportunity to go a complete career without missing a point-after try. But after hitting the first one, and 86-straight over three seasons, the senior zoomed his 87th attempt completely to the left.
DePasquale finished with 87 PATs for his career, third most in MSU history. And his 32 field goals, out of 4 attempted, rank him second in both makes and accuracy.
BIG FINISH: His numbers weren't quite as impressive as in earning Gator Bowl Most Valuable Player last New Years Day. But Chris Relf's final game typified his Bulldog career otherwise, as the senior quarterback just did what it took to score enough points and win a game. He scored his 14th victory as a starter in the process.
After, it must be admitted, a bad beginning where he over-threw open men as part of a just plain sputtering offense overall. "I think I was too excited, I just had to calm down and go out there and make throws. I came out the second quarter making some throws."
Such as a perfect strike to WR Arceto Clark for what proved to be Relf's final touchdown toss for State. The 31-yard scoring pass was Relf's tenth of the season, and gave State a record 19 for the whole year. Eight came from backup Tyler Russell and another by departed Dylan Favre. The record of 18 was set last season, almost entirely by Relf.
Having been through all his ups-and-downs, Relf was least-likely of any Dog to get flustered by the struggling start in Nashville. And it showed, as he helped calm the rest of the unit down by keeping cool under the pressure.
"I was just trying to be patient, I knew we were going to be OK, I thought we had the better team. We just struggled a little bit the first half, we came out strong and got the victory."
Relf finished with 28 touchdown passes in his career, 5th-most in MSU history. And his 57.8% career completions is second-best ever for a Bulldog of more than a season's work. His response though was pure Relf.
"I'm just happy we got the win and send the young guys into next year to hopefully win more."
*The win was Mississippi State's 11th-straight against non-conference competition. It also gives the program a 9-6 record in all bowls, as well as a five-win postseason streak dating back to 1999.
*Announced attendance at 68,000-seat LP Field was 55,208. It didn't escape notice just how closely that figure matches official capacity at Davis Wade Stadium. Certainly the Bulldogs felt at home because the crowd was dominated by maroon and cowbells.