History was made again at Scott Field by the 2014 Bulldogs, as they became the first of their breed to begin a schedule with nine consecutive victories. They achieved this Mississippi State milestone with a 45-16 victory over visiting Tennessee-Martin. Meaning, a season which was already special just became more so.
And that an otherwise-routine beatdown of a non-conference guest for Homecoming gained some serious significance. “This is the reason we came here,” said DE Ryan Brown. “I mean I have jitters even thinking about it. It’s a blessing to be in this position.”
Other positions are unchanged. The non-conference win didn’t impact Mississippi State’s perfect 5-0 SEC status. Nor was beating the Skyhawks (5-6) likely to carry much weight when next rounds of national polls and College Football Playoff rankings are released.
What it was, was a necessary preliminary. “Tennessee-Martin was in our path so we had to focus on them,” WR Joe Morrow said. “We went over the challenge, and now focus on Alabama.”
To be fair, there will be a re-focus on UTM tomorrow with the necessary game review. Some aspects of the success won’t look so successful the second time around either. The Bulldogs did play well enough, long enough, to win their last non-SEC action of the regular season. They also left plays and points on the field which would have wrought a greater rout of the Ohio Valley Conference guests.
”But you know what?” Coach Dan Mullen said. “We’ll take it. We’re 9-0. If you’d asked me what we’d like to be at this time of the season and you’d say 9-0, I’d take it.”
Also being taken Saturday were plays, series, halves, even a whole game off. Mullen sat starting OG Justin Malone out entirely to rest a nagging leg issue, with Devon Desper opening at right guard for Homecoming. WR Jameon Lewis was held out as well with his own leg injury. Rotation CB Will Redmond was held out for a class attendance situation, this being the first game after the issue was noted. And once practical, the rest of the first-teamers and quite a few alternates took off their helmets.
Most notable was RB Josh Robinson, who has been on a record rushing pace this season. He settled for just six carries and 33 yards in less than two quarters, though sideline expressions showed the junior wanted a few more turns. Robinson thus has to wait another week to break the 1,000-yard mark as he stopped at 984; and saw his seven-game touchdown streak snapped too.
But this allowed his own backups to show off for the home folk. They did. RB Ashton Shumpert emerged as the top rushing Dog with 82 yards on just four runs, a 20.5-yard average. “Probably that long run helped that out, though,” Shumpert dead-panned, referring to his 59-yard touchdown blast in the third quarter for a 38-3 lead.
Shumpert wasn’t even second man-in either. RB Brandon Holloway replaced Robinson in the second quarter and made an immediate statement. With the Bulldogs leading 14-3 and not exactly setting a fast offensive pace, the speedster floored it. His first snap was a sweep of right end for 17 yards. His second? A crack of right guard and 35-yard sprint to the end zone.
“It was great blocking so they made it pretty easy,” Holloway said of his first career college score. “Once I jumped through a little hole I pretty much knew it was going to be a touchdown.” Holloway had 70 yards on seven carries.
For good measure QB Dak Prescott helped ground-pound the Skyhawks, with a net 54 yards. He gained 48 of that on the first play of the second quarter, tucking and toting around a good downfield block by WR De’Runnya Wilson for the touchdown.
State compiled 254 rushing yards with an average gain of just under 8.0 every attempt. The air game wasn’t ignored though. In fact Prescott threw more passes before halftime than the team had rushes. Part of it was schematic against the 3-3-5 defensive set, part of it just taking what UTM gave…and a lot of it letting Prescott polish up the arm after a couple of .500ish games.
He was 14-of-23 for 206 yards, setting a record with nine 200-yard passing games; and two touchdowns. The first was a sweet 11-yard strike to WR Fred Brown, a step ahead of Skyhawks safety Walter Evans in the end zone at 6:44 of the opening period. More impressive was a third-quarter connection with Morrow, after Prescott sold UTM on a handoff and had time to let Morrow streak down the left hashes and make his in-cut. Morrow made the in-stride catch around the 20-yard line and ran it in to complete the 55-yard touchdown play.
Perfectionist Prescott wasn’t completely pleased, even if this night he became the first Bulldog quarterback to pass 3,000 yards total offense in a season. “We didn’t execute as clean as we wanted to that first half. But we still made some plays, still go the job done.”
So did backup QB Damian Williams, for the most part. Having not played a live snap since September the true soph needed the work. Because UT-Martin kept things competitive, as well as some of State’s own issues, he didn’t get on the field in the first half when the lead was just 24-3. At 31-3 after Morrow’s big hit, Williams got the call and ball. All he had to do on the first snap was hand it to Shumpert for the touchdown tote.
Some rust showed though. After the Skyhawks finally produced a touchdown in the fourth quarter, on a 31-yard pass from Jarod Neal to Ben Axline, the younger quarterback gave them another opportunity. He didn’t handle a snap cleanly with the fumble ultimately awarded to UTM’s Deantae Glover at the 18-yard line. Five plays later the visitors had scored again with a one-yard Neal keeper. The PAT was blocked by DT Nick James though.
Williams steadied and padded MSU’s margin of victory with a 44-yard pass to WR Jamoral Graham at the goal line with 3:37 remaining. Williams was 2-of-3 for 50 yards. Nor were he and Prescott the only successful slingers for State. Leading 21-3 in the second period the Bulldogs had a 4th-and-4 on their 49. P Devon Bell got the hike, took two steps and jump-shot the ball to CB Tolando Cleveland for ten yards to extend the series.
It concluded with PK Evan Sobiesk knocking through a 27-yard field goal for the halftime margin.
Yet UTM had possession 12 minutes longer and ran 22 more plays. Back Abou Tourre was a 230-pound load pushing forward every one of his 19 carries for 94 yards, while Trent Garland (10, 54) brought the speed element. Neal was 14-of-27 for 159 yards and a touchdown. And what of former Dog Dylan Favre? He was 8-of-16 in the middle quarters for 57 yards with two sacks, by Ryan Brown and DE Preston Smith, before Neal returned to direct those two touchdown drives. UTM’s other points came on a 33-yard field goal that briefly had them within 7-3.
“It’s always good to get a win, 50% of the people playing today didn’t,” Mullen said. “So it’s huge to always get a win. We played OK. Give them credit, they’re coached very well, and play hard.” Not, the coach added, that he was happy with the possession time or third-down conversions, failing to force turnovers, and other specific items. And on offense, “I thought we had some poor execution at times,” he said.
”But we’re going to enjoy this win tonight and get ready for a big game back into conference play tomorrow. A big-time game this week, this is what you play for if you’re going to be in the middle of November competing for first place in the SEC West.”
“It’s going to be a fun game!” Morrow said. “It’s going to be a tough road game but we just have to keep playing ball.”