“We exploded into the game,” Coach Dan Mullen said.
Mississippi State scored half the points for the day, and all that was needed for a win, in a furious opening quarter of work. The Bulldogs (4-2) were ahead 21-0 before changing ends, which in boxing would have been a TKO. Football rules required playing four full quarters, which let Troy (1-4) make losing a little more respectable.
But the outcome was ordained early. Even immediately. As DT A.J. Jefferson said, “I want to knock somebody out first.”
Mississippi State delivered a crushing combination practically from the bell, uhhh, whistle. Two snaps after receiving kickoff, the offense struck as WR Fred Ross turned a simple sideline throw behind the line of scrimmage into a 59-yard touchdown dash. Not much more than a minute later it was the Dog defense getting on the scoreboard. First-time starter S Brandon Bryant separated Trojan quarterback Brandon Silvers from the ball with a blitz-sack, and DT Nelson Adams fell on the fumble in the end zone at 13:16.
Before the quarter was done it was Ross’ turn again, though in his punt return role. Fielding the Troy kick at his 23-yard line, Ross used a couple of blocks to clear the crowd and juked remaining Trojans for a 77-yard touchdown return at 3:04.
Explosive, indeed. “We came out and did some good things,” said Mullen, who became just the third Mississippi State coach to record 50 victories. “I thought we played with a lot of juice, a lot of energy.”
No unit showed more energy than the first defensive line. The group has had its share of individual highlights through five games. Collectively, the evaluations have not been as glowing as expected.
Mullen himself pressed the defensive linemen for more plays and improved consistency. “Coach Mullen set the tempo, he was out there Tuesday in practice,” Jefferson said. “I feel he challenged the defense big-time this week, and we answered the bell.”
By ringing some bells. Adams’ touchdown (Jefferson joked he almost knocked his teammate aside so he could score it) was the highlight moment. The real deal was how the front four, or three depending on package, entirely dominated first half play.
“Coach has been telling them all week get their feet in the backfield,” OLB Beniquez Brown said. “I feel they did a great job of that.”
It showed. DE Ryan Brown matched Jefferson with seven tackles apiece, and that pair combined for 5.5 tackles for losses worth 46 yards. DT Nick James had five assists himself and DT Chris Jones got credit for a half-sack. All told, the down-D-linemen who played got in on 41 total tackles out of the entire 104.
Jefferson wasn’t just inspired by his head coach. A comment he saw from a Troy offensive lineman added some fuel to their fire. “We wanted to prove ourselves big-time today,” Jefferson said.
The entire defense was on its game. At halftime scoreless Troy had netted just 31 total yards, with a negative-20 rushing. Or scrambling. Or getting sacked. By contrast State had 38 points.
“We really just wanted to come out and set the tone,” Ben. Brown said. “We wanted to get that swagger back that normally a Mississippi State defense has. Stop the run, stop the big play.”
Troy did make some big or at least bigger plays in the second half. A 38-0 lead inevitably took the edge off home team energy, and most of those periods had second- and third-unit defenders on the field too. Bu then it mattered only on the stat sheet and for depth chart evaluations.
The offense benefitted from a great defensive start. QB Dak Prescott was hit Friday evening by a stomach bug and was a pre-game decision to even play. When Ross turned the second play and pass of Prescott’s start into a touchdown it took some pressure off.
It also allowed Mullen to pull Prescott before changing quarters, giving freshman QB Nick Fitzgerald charge. He responded with a 13-play drive ending in PK Westin Graves’ 42-yard field goal at 11:39. Fitzgerald made much faster work of his next series, a five-play drive with 28 of the 52 yards coming on his perfect strike to a covered WR De’Runnya Wilson in the end zone at 8:43. When the Dog defense forced a fourth down with 2:02 left in the half Mullen used a timeout to give the offense another scoring chance.
They used it well. Fitzgerald went to Wilson again on second down for a 48-yard gainer, to the Trojan two. On second-and-goal the quarterback scampered over the goal at 1:03, having not needed to use either of the remaining timeouts.
Fitzgerald was able to complete his day with the last Bulldog score and only second-half points. WR Donald Gray muscled in front of a defender at the pylon to catch the 49-yard throw and fall in in the end zone. Fitzgerald finished with 141 yards on 6-of-7 passing for two touchdowns, and rushed eight times for a net 29 yards and the other score.
Prescott’s short day saw him go 3-of-6 for 74 yards and one touchdown. Wilson caught just three balls but worth 82 yards, while Ross and Gray had a pair of balls apiece for 64 and 58 yards. The ground game only netted 125 yards but there were just 33 runs, too, led by RB Dontavian Lee’s 44 yards on five chances.
That’s because once again time of possession was in the other team’s favor. This time though by an even larger margin, as Troy had the ball 40:25…or over two-thirds of the game time. They also ran off 82 snaps to State’s 48.
The scoreboard showed exactly how much of an advantage that really was. As Mullen said, “We also had a lot of explosive plays. We had 48, 59, and 49 yard passes, a punt return for touchdown, also a defensive touchdown. We didn’t run very many plays.”
For all their snaps Troy netted just 254 yards. With starter Silvers knocked out early Dallas Tidwell and Dontreal Pruitt split the quarterbacking. East Mississippi CC star Pruitt was 12-of-17 for 90 yards but was much more effective running with 56 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Burks bulled for 86 yards and the other Trojan touchdown. Troy did get inside State’s five-yard line on a final drive before settling for a short field goal and a few pride points.
“In every phase we really got after it in the first half,” Mullen said. “We really slowed down in the second half, but all that strain we played with I was pleased.”
The most-pleased Bulldogs were those on the front wall of the defense. Reasserting themselves was their own point of pride, per Jefferson.
“We were all amped up to get out there. Today it was OK, everybody is not looking at each other wondering who is going to make the next play. We’re like, it’s my time now.”