And even as he held the MVP's trophy, Prescott tried to hand off most of the credit. "It was all about the gameplan and my teammates. I guess I scored the touchdowns but it was a team record."
That team did know who was in charge though. Once Mississippi State recovered from an opening-series fumble and Rice touchdown, Prescott put everything on the right track. He directed four consecutive touchdown drives for a 27-7 halftime lead, and two more in the third period to seal the success.
In the process Prescott tied the Bulldog record for bowl touchdown passes on 17-of-28 completions, and left the field with 283 yards. That was four short of the Bulldog bowl record. And he scored on called keepers of five and 11 yards in that third period alone.
And still he wouldn't call it any sort of one-Dog show.
"The two rushing touchdowns, I really walked in the end zone," Prescott said. "The offensive line did a great job up front. The three passing touchdowns, Jameon (Lewis) did the work getting it down there; I just had to make one more throw to get it in the end zone. So it really wasn't about me getting a record, I scored it but it was a team deal tonight."
Lewis, voted Offensive MVP, was the biggest beneficiary of Prescott's passing prowess, catching eight of his nine balls from the starting quarterback and another from QB Damian Williams in the fourth period. Lewis ended with 220 yards, which not only set a Liberty Bowl record but was the most ever by a Bulldog receiver in any game, anywhere.
"It was the game planning, the route running, and the defense," Lewis said. "I tried to help, I'm happy that Dak found me." Though, Coach Dan Mullen joked, Lewis didn't score any touchdowns. Those throws ended up in the hands of TE Malcolm Johnson, RB LaDarius Perkins, and TE Artimas Samuel. It took seven Dogs to match Lewis' nine receptions.
The other rushing touchdown came from freshman RB Ashton Shumpert. Yet if the ground game didn't produce the same points or yards, it was as key to State success against a respectable Rice defense focused on the run. Prescott ran nine times for 78 net yards while Perkins had 47 yards on 13 tough totes, balanced out by RB Josh Robinson (45) and Shumpert (29).
The ground power earned a short and strong compliment from the opposition. "They just out-physicaled us," said Rice linebacker James Radcliffe.
Yet Mississippi State physicality showed on both sides. While Prescott and company put on an offensive show, equal credit was due a Dog defense which might not have done dramatic deeds but was efficient. Brutally so. They held the nation's #16 rushing offense almost completely in check, allowing only 61 yards. On 32 rushes. This, too, was domination.
"We just showed emphasis on dominating our gap, and not letting them get anything easy," said DE Preston Smith, the Defensive MVP. So everybody focused on staying in their gap, playing technique, and not trying to do too much but play as a team and play for the team."
The Owls didn't get much more done in the air with 84 yards. Starting quarterback Taylo McHargue was 8-of-15 with a couple of sacks before sitting down so backup Driphu Jackson could take the rest of the hits and hurts. But by the second half Rice had to throw or at least try to because their trademark ground game was ground down.
"I thought the point of the game was our defense, just a dominating defensive effort, just a great smothering effort by our defense," Mullen said. "We gave up an early drive off a turnover but that was about it."
That turnover came on what was otherwise a positive State play, a catch by WR Robert Johnson that would have been a first down. But Radcliffe stripped the ball and Rice recovered at the Bulldog 45-yard line. Mixing rushes around a 18-yard pass play the Owls got close enough for Charles Ross to dive over at 6:41. This was exactly how the Owls wanted to play the SEC Bulldogs, eat clock and use mistakes.
But the Bulldogs gave nothing else away. Instead State started took charge with Prescott directing a 73-yard touchdown drive to tie. A completion to Lewis netted 17, though he'd have had more without a slip on the tricky turf. Facing 3rd-and-14 Prescott had to fake a rusher into jumping so he could dodge, then take off on a 19-yard ramble to the Owl 38. Lewis hauled in another ball for 28 more yards, and on second down Perkins slipped out to the right sideline for an easy catch and jog for touchdown at 2:01.
State had the ball back as the quarters changed and was moving again, aided twice by Rice off-sides penalties. Still Prescott had to convert third downs en route and did, with a seven-yard toss to WR De'Runnya Wilson to the Rice 39; and a 35-yard hookup with Lewis that got to the two. On second down big back Shumpert bulled through behind LG Gabe Jackson for the go-ahead touchdown at 9:49.
Meanwhile the Dog defense had asserted supremacy at any point of contact, after the sluggish start. "We just got back to playing Mississippi State defense," DT P.J. Jones said. "Because we hadn't been hitting anybody in a long time. I think it woke us up, but we got back into our routine."
The defense forced another punt which the offense turned into more points, starting with Lewis' 28-yard catch. Prescott ran for 11 and nine yards, then on second down at the Rice 13 rolled far left. And stopped, and threw all the way back to Johnson. He evaded the only possible tackler and got to the right pylon at 4:32. PK Evan Sobiesk's PAT was blocked so the lead was 20-7.
It didn't hurt anything but pride. Regaining the ball with 85 seconds to halftime the Bulldogs didn't look like a team trying to score with a first-down handoff. But on second down Prescott bought time rolling right while Owl coverage again lost Lewis down the middle. Prescott hit him at midfield and it took safety Julius White dragging Lewis down at the five-yard line to prevent a touchdown. Temporarily, as on third down Prescott lobbed for Samuel in the end zone. Despite having safety Paul Porras on his back the big freshman made the catch for a 27-7 halftime lead.
Having not punted all first half, the Bulldogs did get P Devon Bell a little action in the third quarter. Rice still stalled again and State's offense didn't. Prescott didn't just run and throw, he was lead blocker as Robinson ran for 40 yards down the left sideline to the Owl five-yard line. Prescott took it in from there at 7:25. The next turn took to the air as Prescott threw to Lewis for 34 yards, and Wilson for 26 more. On second down at the 11 Prescott scooted through the right side for the touchdown at 1:42.
Soon enough State had the ball back again as LB Matt Wells came up with a fumble, at the 29-yard line. The quarters changed with Damian Williams replacing Prescott. On 4th-and-goal at the two Williams tried a jump pass that was deflected in the end zone by Julius White.
Williams did get to direct a scoring drive though, a short one from the Rice 31 to the three. This time on fourth down Mullen let walk-on PK Taylor Earhart kick a field goal, good from 19 yards at 4:45 for the final margin of victory.
"I'm really proud of our guys, how they played today," Mullen said. "After a long layoff we have to come out on fire, play at a high level, execute at a high level, and be ready to go play a physical game. And I think we certainly did that."
The fact is, for all the firepower and big plays this was a game won in the trenches. This was how Rice (10-4) had won the Conference USA championship, by out-muscling everyone in their league. But the Owls found themselves overpowered at their own game by a bigger, tougher bunch of Bulldogs. "Their game plan worked better than ours," said Owl back Ross.
As a result Mississippi State's season worked out well in the end. Victory in Memphis not only made the record fourth-straight bowl appearance a success, it made the Bulldogs 7-6. No, a bowl loss and 6-7 record would not have sent the Bulldogs into 2014 on a skid or such.
But now they can turn the calendar over tomorrow in the afterglow of a winning New Years Eve and winning season. "It was pretty awesome, to win big like that is pretty huge," Sobiesk said. "We finished off the season, you can't ask for anything better than that."
His coach, who now has the most bowl victories of any MSU mentor with three, thought it a fitting way to end a special season. "I'm so proud of this team," Mullen said. "Because coming into this year a lot of people didn't pick us to go to a bowl game this year.
"With a very young impressionable group, they didn't listen to that. They stuck together, they battled, they fought through unbelievable adversity and injuries. I think we played the third-hardest schedule in college football. To do that and finish with our fourth-straight bowl game and fourth-straight winning season is very, very special."