"I'm really pleased how we came out the second half and performed, on both sides of the ball," said Mullen. With good reason. After the Bulldog defense stopped Middle Tennessee's opening possession of the period, the offense required just five snaps and one great big gallop by Perkins to put this matchup on the expected path.
On second down at State's 36-yard line, Perkins took a routine-looking counter handoff and made it something special. Breaking through an initial hole created by pulling LG Gabe Jackson and finding the crease behind RG Justin Malone, the halfback burst into the clear for a career-longest 64-yard touchdown carry. Just as Perkins had hoped.
"Coach talked to me on the sideline, coming into our first drive after halftime I was like we have to make a big play," he said. "Everybody has to step it up and I have to make a big play also. I ended up making a big play, credit to the O-line and the fullbacks, and we sparked it up."
The home-run did ignite something for sure, or perhaps inspired the Dog defense to greater things. A deep throw try by Raider quarterback Logan Kilgore went entirely awry as intended target Kyle Griswold stumbled battling with CB Johnthan Banks for position. Banks was left standing to haul in his 16th career interception, tying the school record in the process. He also returned to Middle Tennessee's 25-yard line, but on the tackle had a Raider fall across his left knee.
No harm was done though it took time to get Banks off the field. It didn't take much longer for the Dogs to go those 25 yards, the last 11 on QB Tyler Russell's strike to top target Chris Smith. The wideout broke in front of cornerback Chris Sharpe for the end zone catch and 24-3 lead.
More was right ahead, too thanks to another forced turnover as LB Cameron Lawrence blitzed, sacked, and stripped Kilgore for a fumble Lawrence recovered too. With the Raiders rattled, Russell struck. "It was a new play we had put in, I figured they thought we were going to run. So I got a good play-action fake and that was my third progression, he happened to be open." He being WR Robert Johnson who made the on-knees catch for the 23-yard touchdown at 2:06.
In a little over seven minutes the Bulldogs had scored 21 points and sealed the victory. Mullen credited Perkins' big break as the turning point, while the two takeaways led to unstoppable MSU momentum at last.
"Those turnovers certainly helped giving us some short fields, and when that happened our guys, they did relax but not in a bad way," Mullen said. "They relaxed in a good way. Once Perk broke it and Banks got the interception our guys seemed to be stop worrying, let's go play and execute. And we started making a ton of plays from that point on."
With still more to come from the second teams as State got backups a good quarter's action. QB Dak Prescott rushed for a five-yard touchdown at 12:38 after RB Nick Griffin had torn-off a 44-yard carry. RB Derrick Milton got in on the fun too with rushes of 5, 27, and then a six-yard touchdown at 8:51 to complete the scoring.
The Bulldogs made good use of the ground game again with 231 yards and a 7.0 per-carry average. Perkins was the lead Dog again, notching his fourth 100-yard game of the season by netting 125 on 20 rushes with the touchdown. No less than nine of his totes came on The Opening series, for 36 of the yards, as State tried setting the tone immediately.
"I got the ball a good bit the first drive, we kept pounding and pounding away," Perkins said. "And when you pound like that eventually you're going to break one. That's what happened. I was expecting it anyway."
It just took a little longer than anticipated for the Raiders to completely break. Though Mississippi State did contribute to many of the first half frustrations after the initial touchdown, a four-yard zip from Russell to Smith. The second series produced a 32-yard Devon Bell field goal and 10-0 lead; the third a missed field goal, and failure to expand further despite big margins in snaps, possession time, and yards.
"I think we started off fast and then kind of got sloppy," said Russell. Not the quarterback; he was 12-of-15 at the break with 147 yards and a touchdown already. For that matter Perkins was half-way to his rushing total. It was simply that the Dogs knew they should have been sharper and ahead farther than 10-3. They had held the Raiders to the 32-yard field goal in the second period.
Perhaps, as Smith said, it all might have come too easy on the first series. "We have to keep pushing and put the pedal to the metal, we were playing them on their level. The second half we came out blasting."
The defense certainly did. Though the Raiders ran 25 plays in that period with a frantic hurry-up approach, nothing came close to putting up points. "We knew they were going to do that," Banks said. "Troy had some success against us doing that type of stuff and they used the same gameplan. And I think they executed pretty good."
Besides forcing the two decisive turnovers, the Bulldogs got to Kilgore and Jeff Murphy almost at-will in the third quarter after the halftime talking-to.
"I just didn't think we were playing with the intensity and focus we needed to play with, that was our big stress at halftime," Mullen said. "I think I heard the defensive coaches yell about creating some turnovers and making some plays." The Dogs obviously got the word and Middle Tennessee paid the price. Kilgore was 16-of-25 for 159 yards with the Banks pick and three official sacks. On the ground the Raiders netted 131 yards, not much more than Perkins himself.
Russell was nigh-surgical, 17-of-21 for his three quarters of work with 191 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw to the wrong team, though a second-quarter sack by Raider Shubert Bastien did force a fumble and turnover. Prescott was 3-of-4 for 24 yards and rushed for the touchdown, his third this freshman season.
Smith, Russell's old high school teammate, had a career-best seven catches good for 66 yards and the two touchdowns. No other Dog had more than two grabs, but nine more caught passes from the pair of passers. The MSU offense was so efficient that P Baker Swedenburg only had to kick once.
Banks had eight tackles in three quarters before exiting with the sore left knee. "I'll be alright. I'll get a little ice, tomorrow I'll be alright. A guy hit me late and my knee went back." S Nickoe Whitley also had eight tackles, one for a loss. And backup S Kendrick Market was able to come down with an interception in the end zone on the evening's last play. Plenty more of his teammates got in on the stop-action as State ran in the reserves. A little later than hoped, maybe, but it was still a win.
And, a warning. "We should never start off like that," Perkins said. "It happens sometimes, it's reality. But next week we have to start fast." Because next week the Bulldogs are visiting #1-ranked Alabama for a 7:30 showdown of Division unbeatens.
"It's huge. It's right where we want to be as a program," Mullen said. "I mean here it is last week in October playing the defending national champion, the #1 team in the country, and more importantly playing a team for first place in the SEC West. For us it's the position we wanted to be in when I took the job and took this program over. Our guys are going to be excited for the opportunity."