The closer than expected outcome did not leave the Bulldogs dazed exactly. They did after all walk off Scott Field with a 2-0 record and in many respects entertaining victory. And they were complimentary of how the Blazers (1-1) hung with the home team for so long.
Still there was a frustrated flavor to this win coming after a lopsided rout last week of another Conference USA club. “Got to credit them, they had some great players and they just made the plays,” CB Taveze Calhoun said. “Thankfully we were able to make enough plays to get out with the win.”
Or as Mullen said, “We did a lot of good things at the key moments in the game. We also flited with disaster a couple of times at key moments in the game. You can’t do to have the type of season we want to have.”
That season remains on-track though, because Bulldogs did rise to right occasions. None loomed larger than the first series’ of the third quarter. With Mississippi State ahead only 26-20, the defense forced a three-and-through on UAB’s turn. It ought have been a routine punt for Blazer Hunter Mullins, though his ‘routine’ was 45.2 yards every first half kick.
Instead S Kivon Coman blew threw the right side of UAB’s protection to stuff the kick. RB Nick Griffin finally came up with the loose ball at the 20-yard line, and State’s offense pounced on opportunity. QB Dak Prescott and RB Josh Robinson each ran for eight yards, then Prescott took it upon himself to haul the ball into the end zone at 13:03.
The shift in events did something good for a MSU offense already having a fine day, as they scored on the next two possessions. Prescott directed drives of 66 and 71 yards using 21 total snaps and capped each with a touchdown pass. WR Joe Morrow hauled in a 15-yarder at 6:40, and WR De’Runnya Wilson scored as Prescott found him from eight yards out at the goal line with 1:49 left in the period.
Those 47 points through three quarters was enough, as UAB did try to keep countering. They used deep balls too, with bombs of 81 and 75 yards from Cody Clements and Jeremi Briscoe respectively. It wasn’t enough to change the outcome; it was a reminder why State couldn’t fully savor their win.
Because the Bulldogs were out-gained on their own field, 548 yards to 516 despite running eleven more plays. The Blazers threw for 435 yards, and while the two quarterbacks were combined under-50% completions every caught ball averaged 27.2 yards. They also had a 88-yard touchdown play in the second quarter, from Briscoe to JJ Nelson.
Those home runs offset any efficiency issues and certainly gave Mullen something to chew on. “To give up 400 yards passing is embarrassing for us, that’s not what our program was built on.” But the head coach didn’t toss that side of the squad and staff entirely under any busses. The Dog defense made enough stops to somewhat limit the total damage, and even provided a turnover touchdown. DE Preston Smith’s first quarter interception was returned 21 yards for what proved important points.
Maybe above it all was the punting of Devon Bell, who at least made the Blazers look long for their chances to score or allowed State to stop extended drives. Again, it was enough.
“Every time it started to slip a little bit we grabbed tight and did the things we needed to do to win,” Mullen said. “I’m proud of our older guys and our leadership, nobody was looking for someone else to go make a play. Guys were willing to step up and get it done.”
Offensively it was Prescott stepping up as expected. Midweek talk of an ankle issue did not prove important Saturday. Prescott’s 12-of-25 passing wasn’t sharp as usual and he did throw an interception, but it wasn’t anything physical slowing that pace. UAB played better coverage than most anticipated, and broke up a number of on-target tosses. Prescott still tallied 211 yards and finished with four passing touchdowns for a second-straight game. Only Tim Tebow at Florida has done that so far for Mullen, and Prescott became the first Dog ever to throw four scores and rush for 100 yards in the same game.
The running was necessary, too. With the game not settled in the third quarter, Prescott ran for 56 yards on nine rushes and converted third and even a couple of fourth downs in the process. He was 6-of-8 passing that period with two of the touchdowns, and of course ran for the key score.
Robinson did the heavier lifting, or running; 20 carries for a career-best 124 yards and a second-quarter touchdown that certainly settled some MSU minds after UAB had taken a 17-13 lead. The Blazers would go back ahead one more time, thanks to a couple of missed Bulldog PAT kicks costing two automatic points.
But lose this one? Not once State went to its offensive strength of pounding ground and UAB alike. “Our plan coming in was run the football,” Mullen said. “I think we were able to do that for the most part. And it’s good to see us do that. I want to see us do that.” Not only did the Dogs run, they ran at a faster pace that didn’t allow the Blazers a break or chances to change tiring tacklers.
As the afternoon developed it was hard to remember just how easily State had struck first. They needed just three snaps and 57 seconds to get on the scoreboard, as Prescott hit WR Robert Johnson breaking inside single coverage without a supporting safety. Johnson caught in-stride at the UAB 35, skipped a tackler and cut back the other way for a 68 yard touchdown at 14:03.
”We’ve been practicing that play all week and it was there for us,” Johnson said. “It was doing like I do in practice and it came to me.”
But the pre-planned rotation of quarterbacks seemed to mute any early momentum as QB Damian Williams couldn’t move the club. He was lucky not to have a sack-strip at the MSU nine become a turnover, with Robinson saving the ball. Twice Bell had to boot out of the end zone. The Blazers got on the board themselves with a 44-yard Ty Long Field goal at 5:31.
While Prescott did throw a pick on his next series, at least it was at the one-yard line that had UAB trying to escape the end zone. On 3rd-and-5 Clements was bowled over by a bunch of Bulldogs led by MLB Benardrick McKinney; he was able to unload the ball but in hindsight would have accepted the safety.
Because the dying duck was caught, one-handed, by Smith at the 21-yard line and with enough blocking ahead to get the touchdown. So all momentum ought have been with the home team again…
Except the PAT by PK Westin Graves was missed, and UAB returned the kickoff to their 39. That was followed by a slick flea-flicker pass netting 36 yards. Clements hit Josh Magee for first-and-goal at the Bulldog five and two Howard rushes made it a 13-10 game. The touchdown was the first offensive TD scored on Scott Field since third quarter of last year’s Alabama game. More were to come.
Williams couldn’t muster a first down on his next chance, with UAB getting the ball back on their 12. One play was all they needed to change the game entirely, as wideout Nelson got inside and past Calhoun for Briscoe’s throw and the longest TD play of the day.
That got Prescott back in the game and he promptly directed the crucial TD drive, beginning with a tough catch by TE Brandon Hill for 40 yards. Prescott and Robinson matched runs before the tailback bounced out left and went down the sideline for the go-ahead…though Evan Sobiesk clanked this PAT off the right upright. The Blazers regained one last lead on a Long field goal at 8:06, but Prescott used the hurry-up offense beautifully.
That included on 4th-and-4 when the quarterback kept for five yards. At the 20-yard line a pass play was designed for either tight end; Prescott chose TE Gus Walley who made the first catch of his college career go for a touchdown and the 26-20 intermission margin.
While the air games got most of the big yards and plays, it was State’s ability to sustain the ground attack that never really let things get too far out of control. Sharing the hard runs, Prescott and Robinson simply had too much muscle for the Blazers to offset with big shots. “We knew we were going to work pretty good together,” Robinson said. By contrast UAB did run for 113 yards total, 89 on some mighty tough work from Jordan Howard, but it wasn’t enough.
And the Dog defense made just enough stops too, with McKinney posting a career-high 12 tackles with a sack and 2.5 more for losses. The Blazers did hit their shot but five more balls were broken up and when pressure did come overthrows were the norm. Not that Mullen was of a mood to let the defensive staff off the hook entirely. To that end the head coach mentioned a “very early meeting” Sunday with that group.
“But it worked out OK for us,” Mullen added. Besides, “As our team knows it’s hard to get wins. We’re going to enjoy that win, go look at the things we have to improve on. We have a tough challenge next week with our first road game, we’re going to have to improve and get ready for that game.”
That next game and first road trip takes Mississippi State to Mobile, facing South Alabama at 3:00. The Jaguars opened their season well today, and will be motivated more than ever to host a SEC program for the first time in the young program’s history. The Bulldogs intend to play the part of ungracious guests. Robinson’s post-game comment might not thrill his coach, but at least the tailback was being candid about the first three tests of the schedule.
“Pretty much it’s warm-up games and then you hit your SEC opponent. That’s what you need beforehand.”