And, half-way to bowl eligibility already at 3-0, as well as off to the best season start since 1999. But it was much too close for Bulldog comfort, as despite a 23-7 halftime deficit the Trojans were making a real run at the first home-field defeat of a SEC guest. As it turned out State became the first BCS-league team to take a win from Troy at home.
All of which left Coach Dan Mullen with mixed impressions. In fact, he referred first to the evening as "Terrible" with a double-repetition. At the same time, "You know what, I'm proud of our guys. We found a way to win."
This after showing a lot of ways State could have lost. Such as shockingly porous defense that allowed 572 yards and 30 first downs; or a series of stunning dropped passes thrown right to receiver hands, three of which would have surely gone for touchdowns. Add in ill-time penalties; or just a clanked PAT that suddenly loomed large when Troy made it a 23-21 scoreboard at 12:40 of the last period, and a serious SEC upset was possible.
The Trojans did not get their final shot, though. With Russell taking charge, State mustered a 12-play drive of 74 yards to just about lock up victory. Russell, who got it going himself with a called keeper of 20 yards, capped it with a superb read-and-react. The Bulldogs lost a couple of yards on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 23 but had no notion of attempting any field goal, which Mullen considered useless. "No, it was right at the edge, they had been scoring so fast. We felt we had a good play called."
But not exactly the play Russell saw taking shape. Instead of going over to WR Chris Smith for, hopefully, enough yards to move the chains, Russell tried changing the scoreboard as Bumphis went down the middle. "When I saw the coverage. It was more like a two-coverage and the corner sat-down on Chris," Bumphis said. "So I had to win against just a safety."
Russell's throw found Bumphis just far enough from the back line to get a foot down, though the ball seemed to be a little loose in his hands. The SEC official ruled a touchdown, which mattered as it was reviewed by a Sun Belt official in the booth. He confirmed the score.
Troy answered with a fast surge reaching State's 23 yard line. There Corey Robinson, having a superb evening in the air, threw a rare miss-connect wide of a well-covered Jaquon Robinson inside the ten. With 4th-and-7 the Trojans booted the field goal they would need anyway, hoping to get the ball back despite just one timeout.
They never touched it again. Perkins all-but-sealed the outcome on first down with a 30-yard burst to the midfield stripe. "I knew I had to score or break a long one. And I broke a pretty good one so we ran the clock out after that." With Russell diving forward on 3rd-and-short. Three safe snaps ran out the remaining seconds.
Perkins had a spectacular outing, rushing for a career-best 179 yards on 23 carries with a 30-yard touchdown in the first quarter. That was the score that put State in front to stay, too, after the Trojans had grabbed a short-lived 7-3 advantage. That touchdown came courtesy of Troy's Shawn Southward, who scored twice on 20 carries with 137 yards of his own.
The biggest numbers came via Robinson. A week after chunking the ball a school-record 54 times in one game he threw ‘only' 45 passes against State. He completed 32 of them for 343 yards, but no touchdowns. And two of them were intercepted, both by CB Darius Slay in the second quarter.
In fact those turnovers and one other, a strip of a completed pass by LB Deonte Skinner recovered by LB Ferlando Bohanna, might well have set the ultimate course of this game. Because leading 10-7 but already antsy about Troy's consistent production, Mississippi State figured they were perfect moments to pounce.
After Bohanna's recovery at the Bulldog 38 Russell threw a perfect bomb that WR Robert Johnson just plain dropped, open at the 20-yard line. Russell wasn't bothered and came back with a quick screen to Bumphis behind a pair of blockers. They got him the first five yards and Bumphis did the rest, with a timely downfield block by WR Jameon Lewis, for a 72-yard touchdown at 13:03. It was only a 16-7 lead as PK Devon Bell hit an upright for the second time and this PAT came back.
Slay ended Troy's next series with an interception, as Robinson evaded a blitz but forced a deep heave the cornerback out-muscled Eric Thomas for at the eight-yard line. Troy got the ball back and converted a clutch third down, but came back with one of Robinson's rare bad throws. Slay got a hand under this one on the slide at the 42-yard line. During a timeout for review, which upheld the turnover, the call was to go for the jugular again.
This time to Bumphis and this one worked. Russell had just enough time necessary on the play-action for Bumphis to get a step on Troy's Barry Valcin, and while the quarterback was sandwiched upon release the throw connected a step from the goal line for the touchdown at 4:50.
"Yeah, he told me we were going to run it on the sideline," Bumphis said. "And the way their safeties played it was going to be open no matter when we ran it."
Russell finished with a 11-of-26 line which Mullen reminded should have been better, much better save for some embarrassing drops. In the first half WR Ricco Sanders and Lewis also just let sure touchdowns go off their undefended hands. In the third quarter it was WR Joe Morrow, utterly open after his defender fell down and nothing between him and the goal line. He just dropped it, too. Any of those plays, completed, would have made for a much easier evening and better-looking stat sheet. All of them would have made for a record Russell line.
Still, "I never thought about us losing," Perkins said. "We knew it was going to be a hostile environment, they were saying this was the most people that came in a long time. We came out kind of flat but we picked it up."
Bumphis had a career night as well, netting 180 yards on just six catches along with three touchdowns. That tied the State game record, as well as moved the senior into a career-tie of 17 touchdowns. "It's pretty exciting! I didn't do it all by myself though, you've got to give a lot of credit to the quarterback."
LB Cameron Lawrence was a bright spot, along with Slay, for an otherwise battered defense with 13 tackles. But no Dog on that side left happy, with a 6.6-yard per play rate allowed and 9-of-16 conversions on third downs. State only converted 4-of-14 times by contrast, with 457 total yards and just 17 first downs. The Dogs did net better per-play at 7.5, yet it was what else ought to have been gained and scored that kept this one much closer than necessary.
Only, as Mullen said, a close call was still a win and that is something he can teach off of. "We're very fortunate, to play as poorly as we did and come out with a win."