Dogs Ring Out 2014 With Orange Bowl Loss

MIAMI GARDENS – The clock hit 12:00 with the Bulldogs in their Orange Bowl locker room. Nobody was celebrating, though. Twelve minutes earlier, a midnight had struck on a mostly-magical 2014 season.

Georgia Tech gave an option offense clinic, pounding the ground for six touchdowns and 452 yards in a 49-34 defeat of Mississippi State. The #12-ranked Yellow Jackets ended 11-3 and, to the loudly-shouted joy of their fans, a pair of victories over Southeastern Conference clubs. Both named Bulldogs, too.

#7-ranked State finished 10-3, the third ten-win campaign in program history. And, for only the second time, in the Orange Bowl. This and other achievements including all sorts of team and player records didn’t matter much at the moment. Given their prime-time spot as part of the inaugural College Football Playoffs, the Bulldogs—who spent weeks ranked #1 overall—only felt the frustration.

”I mean, just a lot of disappointment,” OC Dillon Day said. “It really didn’t go to plan. I guess you can say we accomplished a lot but, that wasn’t the way any of us wanted to go out.”

The Dogs did go down swinging. Or flinging, and running. When the numbers were tallied Mississippi State actually out-gained the Yellow Jackets 605 yards to 577. QB Dak Prescott set the Orange Bowl record with 453 passing yards, and three receivers had over 100 yards each for another Bowl record. So offense wasn’t Mississippi State’s core problem.

Defense…was. Even allowing for Georgia Tech’s unique triple-option attack, it was a very bad evening for the Dog D. The Yellow Jackets netted 7.4 yards each rush, and got gains whether running inside, outside, any side. The extra bowl practice time did not pay off as expected, though State players blamed lack of execution rather than schemes.

”The coach put us in the right spot to make the plays,” LB Benardrick McKinney said. “I guess a lot of the guys tried to do too much. I’d like to say it was more missed assignments, we practiced covering the speed every day.”

Maybe so, and State’s defense also labored under a handicap of having coordinator Geoff Collins abruptly leave during campus bowl came before defensive installations began. No Dog raised that point though. They blamed themselves, while equally crediting Tech’s efficiency.

”They did an excellent job,” CB Taveze Calhoun said. “They just out-played us.”

Quarterback Justin Thomas certainly did. He rushed for 121 yards on just 14 carries, and scored on runs of 13, 32, and 15 yards…untouched every time, so decisive and quick were his reads. Thomas only threw 12 times with seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Five of those caught balls were by Darren Waller for 114 yards and the lone passing score, using his 6-5 height to clear advantage over much shorter State cornerbacks.

Thomas didn’t top the rushing list though. Synjyn Days did with 171 yards on 21 rushes with three touchdowns. Just one of his runs accounted for 69 of the yards and a score, and in some ways it was the game’s key play. And, too reminiscent of a huge third-quarter run in the Egg Bowl allowed by a Bulldog defense which late in the season forgot how to tackle speedy backs.

”It was really just missed tackling,” LB Beniquez Brown said. “It was really a big picture of wrapping up, making tackles.” Had State finished off Days and other Tech backs, things would have not gotten out of control in the second half.

Not that the offense was without its own flaws. In fact it was Prescott’s second pass of the evening that set an early tone, because it was tipped and intercepted at the Bulldog 36-yard line. Four rushes later Georgia Tech had the lead on a Days dive at 12:38. They made it 14-0 late in the quarter on a 88-yard drive when Waller bodied-up on CB Jamerson Love, seven inches shorter, to catch Thomas’ 41-yard pass at the goal line.

Mississippi State settled down on both sides. The offense drove for a pair of second-quarter field goals, around the team’s first touchdown as Prescott ran it in from five yards out at 9;53. Those kicks though were signs of different troubles to Coach Dan Mullen.

”Three of our red zone trips only netted six points. I guess we could have used the other 15, there it is, that’s the difference in the final score.” Still State had it down to a 14-13 deficit with 5:12 left to halftime. That proved long enough for both teams to score more. Tech did so on an eerily-efficient drive of 12 snaps, the last with Thomas feinting a pitch-left before spinning solo right and getting to the pylon at 0:29.

The Bulldog response was much more dramatic and unscripted. At the Tech 42 with 0:05 left Prescott had time to look, look, and finally heave to the end zone. Receivers De’Runnya Wilson and Jameon Lewis fought as many Yellow Jacket defenders for the ball which was batted back…where WR Fred Ross could dive under the deflection for a stunning score and 21-20 Tech margin.

Except halftime let the Jackets recover nicely. And, did nothing to improve Bulldog defense. Because on second down Days bounced to the left side where in order he shed S Deontay Evans, juked S Jay Hughes, and slid off CB Taveze Calhoun’s low hit. Replay seemed to show him touching sideline on the run but the touchdown call was upheld.

After State gave the ball up on downs at the Tech 19, the Jackets broke Bulldog backs with a ruthless all-rushing drive of 81 yards. Thomas got the last 32 having faked CB Will Redmond practically out of his adidas cleats on the corner. Down 35-20 now the Bulldogs got a drive going with three completed Prescott throws, before an option-type rush of their own. It blew up, as unblocked Jamal Golden speared RB Josh Robinson as he tried to tuck-in the pitch. The fumble at midfield was turned into another touchdown drive and Thomas’ third score.

Prescott was able to finish a 13-play series with a seven-yard throw to Wilson. The onsides kick was fielded by Tech and turned into points three minutes later. State got as far as the five-yard line with fourth down before Prescott was forced into a low and incomplete throw. A series later, after Tech had burned up nearly six minutes, Prescott did get the last Bulldog points with a caught ball by Wilson. The points were just for style and stats by then.

Wilson finished with 105 yards and two scores on nine catches. Joe Morrow had a career night of six catches and 117 yards, while Ross got 102 yards on six balls including the unlikely carom. The problem was State not only couldn’t keep pace with Georgia Tech’s ground game; the Dogs were not even normally effective rushing. They netted just 152 yards on 33 carries, nothing longer than a 18-yard break by Robinson who finished with 75 on 13 attempts in what the junior had announced would be his last college game.

”Obviously, a tough loss for us,” Mullen said. “Give Georgia Tech a lot of credit. They executed at a very, very high level. They scored touchdowns in the red zone, converted real well on third down, didn’t have penalties. I imagine they followed their game plan the way they wanted to.”

Mississippi State didn’t, certainly not on defense and with the imbalance of pass-to-run not really on offense either. As Mullen said, “We did some good things. We didn’t do them well enough.” The result was a season of great things wasn’t as, well, great as it could have been. Having reached #1 in the nation, the Bulldogs dropped three of their last four games and will certainly lose their top-ten ranking in final polls too.

Yet, as senior LB Christian Holmes said, “We’re tied with Mississippi State history. Which I can handle that. Back at two-a-days, if you had asked us if we could get to the Orange Bowl everyone would have said hey, let’s go!”

The Bulldogs did go. Now they go home, most to regroup for 2015 and beyond and the seniors to whatever their career-paths hold. A couple of juniors, Prescott and McKinney, still must decide if they will return for senior seasons or follow Robinson’s lead. McKinney is assumed to be turning professional; Prescott is the larger question. As in the story filed earlier, he denied a national commentator’s in-game report that he was definitely coming back to college. This was not the same as Prescott saying he is leaving, either.

Whatever he does decide, Prescott and club wrote a prominent page in program history.

”We did a lot of things this school has never done. The senior class led us to, like Coach said, new standards. And that’s a success itself for setting a standard for the University and for the football team.”

For his part Mullen returns to Starkville to continue working on his contract extension. Athletic director Scott Stricklin has no time-frame for completion at this point. Mullen must also decide on promoting a current assistant to defensive coordinator or hiring a new coach, as well as how returning staff salaries are to be upgraded after a record-setting year.

”Obviously it’s very disappointing to end the season on a loss,” Mullen said. “We’ve got a lot to build on. Tonight we’ll get some sleep and wake up tomorrow and find a way to make the 2015 edition even better than this one.”

Call that a New Years resolution.

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