The #4-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 6-1 SEC) celebrated on smoke-shrouded Scott Field after completing an unscathed home schedule, and scoring a tenth regular-season victory for the first time in program history. Of less historical maybe but more immediate meaning, Mississippi State also bounced back from defeat at Alabama in entirely impressive style.
”That’s exactly what we wanted to do,” QB Dak Prescott said. “Come out and show how hungry we were after that loss. We just had to respond and we did exactly that, on offense and defense. Just a good, complete game from the whole team.”
Complete was putting it mildly, from a Commodore perspective. Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7 SEC) left Starkville shut out and shut down, limited to 228 yards on 63 plays. The Bulldogs netted 502 yards en route to the largest margin of SEC victory, since 1936, when Scott Field was only 22 seasons-old. The shutout was State’s first in league play since 1999…which also happened to be the last and only other year a Bulldog team went 7-0 at home.
So any concern about a post-Alabama hangover was answered emphatically. Quickly too, as State scored touchdowns five of their first six turns with the football including a turnover return by LB Christian Holmes in the second quarter.
”We wanted to redeem ourselves,” said Holmes. “I think we did to a certain extent. It was good play with a goose-egg on the scoreboard and the offense did their thing, too.”
About all Dan Mullen could complain about was a missed PAT in the first quarter, a poor punt in the second, and one penalty that nearly earned the head coach a flag himself for his fury. Otherwise Mullen was all smiles as his team showed no ill effects from the previous weekend.
“I got the question all week, how are we going to respond. I couldn’t be happier with how our guys responded. Guys were flying around making plays, playing with that chip on their shoulder. You know, really believing they had a lot to play for.”
A lot indeed. With one weekend left on the schedule Mississippi State still has a chance to win the SEC’s Western Division, by winning at Ole Miss and getting a huge helping hand from Auburn against Alabama. Even without that chain of SEC events, the Bulldogs are very much in contention for a College Football Playoff berth. Just beating Vanderbilt might not improve that #4 ranking but doing it impressively—the ‘style points’ phrase was thrown around liberally all day—won’t hurt State’s status at all.
”We got a big win against a SEC team,” Wells said. “It’s a great thing for the program and the team.”
Most of all for the 18 seniors playing their final home game. Sixteen of them started in fact as Mullen shuffled the lineup to get more upperclassmen on the field. It was the junior quarterback who promised success, though. “Dak (Prescott) told me before the game we’re going to do it for the seniors,” said OG Ben Beckwith. “And we did it big.”
Very big as the points and yardage and plays proved. Of the 38 State snap in the first half, ten produced gains of 10 yards or more. Often lots more. The Bulldog offense is built upon pounding ground but let Prescott show off the arm more in the early going. He completed his first seven official passes, was 13-of-16 at intermission and finished 16-of-21 for 193 yards. Three of his throws produced touchdowns, all to different targets.
”Dak was sharp tonight,” Beckwith said. “We threw the ball a pretty good bit in the first half. It was fun, I like pass blocking and I felt we protected well.” Prescott was sacked just once all evening. A better measure of the protection was he only rushed five other times. “We pretty much dominated all night up front,” Beckwith said.
Prescott put State on its own scoreboard on the initial drive with a nine-yard shovel pass to TE Malcolm Johnson (followed by that missed point-after); and ended the second with a 27-yard connection with WR Joe Morrow. This score merited special attention because State appeared to score on the previous snap. RB Josh Robinson’s 17-yard scamper was negated on an illegal block by Johnson. The Dogs showed they weren’t rattled at all.
The Commodores certainly were by the third Bulldog touchdown, as Holmes stripped Latevius Rayford at the MSU 49-yard line, recovered the ball himself and took it all the other way (see posted feature). “I think that really broke the game open for us,” Mullen said.
Having broken Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs kept crushing fragments. Robinson turned receiver for a 14-yard touchdown pass from Prescott, then the quarterback kept for a four-yard score. An interception by LB Beniquez Brown wasn’t turned into a touchdown; PK Evan Sobiesk was content to knock through a 34-yard field goal on the last play of the half for a 37-0 margin. As best records show this was the largest intermission lead ever over a SEC opponent.
Maybe this relaxed everyone too much. “We got a little sloppy to start the second half and part of that is probably me getting to conservative,” Mullen said. Line coach John Hevesy had the answer. “He told us score one more time and you get out of the game,” Beckwith said. “So when he told us that we went and got it done!”
With a 76-yard drive completed by RB Ashton Shumpert slicing through left guard from three yards out. Even the second offense was able to execute though, as QB Damian Williams directed a nine-play surge with Morrow catching the nine-yard toss for his second score of a career night.
Meanwhile seven of Vanderbilt’s eleven series lasted five or fewer plays. The Commodores could not run the ball at all, with 49 net yards. McCrary had to throw 31 times with a pick and 161 yards; Patton Robinette also was intercepted, by CB Tolando Cleveland as the Dog defense took the ball away three times.
”We talked about it all week,” Mullen said. “I think it really broke our slump, it’s one of those things you start pushing once you get one.” State had no turnovers, though one Prescott pass was temporarily called an interception before review ruled otherwise.
”We cleaned a lot of things up that we did wrong last week and didn’t step on our own toes,” Prescott said. “We got going and fed off each other and had a good, complete game.”
The lineup wasn’t complete. Leading WR De’Runnya Wilson was cleared to play after a late-game dinging at Alabama, but fortunately—to the coach—was not needed and can be full-speed next week. Morrow matched his touchdown output of the previous two years in one game with two scores to take up any slack, and nine other Dogs caught one of the 25 total completions.
Besides 0 turnovers, the other statistic State liked best was making good on 11-of-15 third downs. Vanderbilt by contrast was 4-of-15. The Commodores only had two real chances at avoiding shutout. Tommy Openshaw missed a 41-yard field goal at 7:48 of the third quarter, and the last Vanderbilt snap saw S Brandon Wells break up a goal-line throw on fourth down.
This all-around domination achieved exactly what all Dogs intended. “I mean we just felt like this was our statement game to show the world we’re capable of winning games,” Holmes said.
The Bulldogs have won games, a regular-season record ten of them. But the schedule has one more date to play, and the one that matters most any year. SEC and CFP hopes hang on getting that 11th victory…not that extra motivation should be needed when the Golden Egg is at stake.
Fireworks of another sort are expected from the looming trip to face an angry Ole Miss squad. ”It’s huge,” said Morrow. “It’s the biggest game of the season. We can’t lose this game, we have to keep the trophy where it’s at.”