Mississippi State knocked out three quick touchdowns to take control early, and in the second half pulled on away to a comfortable 51-28 victory. The Bulldogs successfully ended a 9-4 season with Mullen’s fourth bowl victory in six chances, and gave the Southeastern Conference another post-season success at ACC expense.
North Carolina State left Bank of America Stadium 7-6.
“I’m really proud of our guys, with how we came out,” Mullen said. “In a bowl game there’s so much about execution. I’m proud of how we came out and executed in all three phases.”
Two phases were just about enough. The Bulldog defense set an instant tone by intercepting Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett on the very first play from scrimmage. Midway of the first quarter Brissett was picked again. Both turnovers were turned into touchdown passes as Dak Prescott was on his way to Most Valuable Player honors.
Mississippi State would bolt to a 21-0 lead before the game Wolfpack battled back with a pair of touchdowns to keep the outcome in some sort of question. Just, not in Bulldog minds. State knocked out ten more points before halftime and never let N.C. State get closer than 31-21. It wasn’t close enough.
“We knew we had to focus coming back out of the half,” WR Fred Ross said. “I think we let off the gas a little bit, so the focus was on finishing strong.”
The Dogs did that. Prescott capped his record-ripping career with a 25-of-42 evening, good for 380 yards and four touchdowns. He did throw one ball to the wrong team. And he lost the handle twice, though each time an offensive lineman fell on the ball. Once, for a touchdown as new starting OC Justin Malone picked up a loose ball in the end zone after Prescott got to the goal. That was the touchdown that stemmed N.C. State’s momentum, in fact.
Ross caught seven of Prescott’s passes, for 74 yards and the game’s first touchdown. He also rushed for a 33-yard touchdown that built the 21-0 lead. With all the aerial success, it was surprising to find at game’s end the Bulldogs had rushed for 189 net yards and three more scores.
All of this on a grass field that had taken a lot of water over the preceding days, and had not been trimmed recently as a result. In the post-game trophy presentation everyone was sinking into the torn-up turf. But during the action?
“As the game went on the field conditions didn’t matter,” LB Beniquez Brown said. “We just attacked, and whatever happened, happened.” They attacked Brissett for sure, with five official sacks, a lot more hurries, and 12-of-28 passing with the two picks and 214 yards. Brown had 2.0 of those sacks.
The Bulldogs did some blitzing with linebackers or defensive backs, but mostly let the front four do the damage. They did, consistently. Brissett was still a battler, running for 67 yards and a touchdown and throwing for another when usually forced to move and fire.
North Carolina State still netted 210 rushing yards with two touchdowns by Jaylen Samuels. But their best successes came on short, big-play drives. That was a gameplan the Wolfpack was just not equipped to play against a Mississippi State offense that thrives on fast scoring series. In fact twice Prescott needed just two snaps to throw a touchdown.
WR De’Runnya Wilson had five catches and 96 yards with a touchdown. The surprise factor was diminutive RB Brandon Holloway. He carried 13 times on slick turf for a workmanlike 41 yards…but caught four passes worth 78 yards and touchdowns of 10 and 55 yards in the second half. The conditions did nothing to hamper State’s air attack at all, with a final yardage total of 569 yards and 7.4 per play compared to 424 yards for the Wolfpack.
“We didn’t allow the weather bother us in how we executed on offense,” Mullen said. “Coming out and making some big plays on defense, creating some turnovers early in the game was huge. Defensively I thought we played excellent through the night.”
A night that capped some special history for a special senior class. The four- or five-year Bulldogs finished with 34 varsity victories. The only similar stretch was 1939-42, also with 34 wins. But freshmen were ineligible then and of course seasons were shorter.
These upperclassmen leave Charlotte then as the winningest senior class ever at Mississippi State. Plus, Mullen noted. “In the history of Mississippi State football only six teams have won nine games. They’re one of those, and up to two years ago there’d only been four.
“To do it with this group, this senior class in consecutive years is really special. I think they’re really changed what people think about Mississippi State football.”
GAME SUMMARY: Taking first turn with the ball, North Carolina State suffered the first disaster too. On the opening snap Jacoby Brissett rolled right but was caught by DE Jonathan Calvin coming from the back side. His short throwaway fell into LB Gerri Green’s hands at the 26-yard line. After getting first down at the 14 on a RB Brandon Holloway run, Prescott on second down threw out to Ross on the left side.
Wilson tied up one defender and shielded away another so Ross could slip down the sideline for the 14-yard touchdown at 13:33. The play pushed Prescott past 9,000 career passing yards, only the 17th SEC player to get that mark.
North Carolina State broke a 26-yard rush to open their second turn and crossed midfield before punting to State’s 12. Prescott hit WR Donald Gray for consecutive gains of 14 and 26 yards, the second a great adjustment by the receiver on a rushed throw. The drive ended on a third-down sack, but P Logan Cooke‘s punt hit around the five-yard line and CB Jamoral Graham caught the carom on the one.
The Wolfpack did ease away from the danger zone with a couple of first downs. Then a gadget play, meaning to reverse-toss to Brissett who’d lined up at receiver, only lost four yards as DT Nelson Adams stayed home. A more normal pass the next down became his second turnover. S Brandon Bryant made an amazing backwards lean, leap, one-handed stab and grab for the interception at State’s 33.
Two passes to Wilson doubled the Dog lead. Prescott hit #1 perfectly down the left sideline for 39 yards; then came back to Wilson working from the other side of the line on an in-route. Wilson made the easy catch at the ten and ran in untouched at 3:31.
The Wolfpack got another drive going by converting two third downs and one fourth down before the first quarter ended with the ball on State’s 34-yard line. They faced another fourth down at the 32, trying a quick end-burst with Bra’lon Cherry as a back.
LB Beniquez Brown got a grip and dragged Cherry down right at the marker. The initial ruling of first down was reviewed, and the eye in the sky saw Cherry had fallen just short at 14:03.
The Bulldog offense used this different sort of turnover, too. Prescott targeted WR Malik Dear on three-straight passes, two caught for net of 25 yards. After a defensive hold had first down on the Pack 33, Prescott rolled right and pitched back to Ross reversing-left. With OT Elgton Jenkins sealing the inside, and WR Joe Morrow holding his outside block, Ross shot the gap for the touchdown at 12:17.
The three-score margin mattered more when North Carolina State needed just two plays to chop a touchdown off it. After eating a six-yard sack, Brissett sold a play going one way…while tight end Pharoah McKever slipped unnoticed to the other side. Brissett lobbed it over for the easy catch and a long dash down the left sideline for an 82-yard touchdown at 11:16.
The Bulldogs didn’t do much to offset the momentum change despite a couple of first downs. One came on a Prescott fumble recovered by OG Devon Desper; the other when after an incompletion #90 shoved the quarterback late. But three snaps later Prescott threw the ball right to Clark for the turnover at N.C. State’s 43 with 7:50 in the half.
They needed just 67 seconds to score again. With 4th-and-1 at the Bulldog 48, State packed in a short-yardage defensive set. Brissett instead handed to Jaylen Samuels darting at left end and turning it untouched for the touchdown dash at 6:43.
“Those two touchdowns were just miscues by us, miscommunication,” Brown said. “We got together and ran to the ball and made sure it didn’t happen again.”
The lead down to 21-14 and things seeming shaky, Prescott was able to settle everyone and everything down with a touchdown drive. He got it going with a deep strike down the right sideline to Fred Brown, then dove to convert 4th-and-1 to the Pack 23. On the play Prescott’s helmet came loose so he had to leave despite using a timeout. QB Nick Fitzgerald was able to hand it off just fine to RB Ashton Shumpert for 13 yards and first down.
Then Prescott returned and threw out to Wilson for what looked like a touchdown but was ruled a nine-yard gain. On third down Prescott tried center and got to the line…where the ball came loose. Malone reached down to pick it up and thus was credited with the touchdown at 3:18.
And State wasn’t done for the half. A fast three-and-through got the ball back with 99 seconds and a timeout left. TE Darion Hutcherson got one first down on the Pack 44, and Prescott kept for 15 yards. With fourth down on the 22-yard line PK Westin Graves was given a 39-yard field goal. From the left hashmarks he was good at 0:14 for the 31-14 lead at halftime.
The Bulldogs had first turn of the second half and began with three-straight incompletions lasting just 17 seconds. N.C. State did a bit better, driving to MSU’s 37 before a procedure penalty and blitz for loss on a completed pass.
The punt looked like Dog disaster for a moment. Ross signaled for fair catch only to lose the ball. But Dravious Wright had brushed Ross in passing before the catch, so the fumble and touchdown return were negated for Bulldog possession on the 22. The possession didn’t lead to much but Prescott did get a first down to burn a little clock and keep field position favorable.
It didn’t stop N.C. State from scoring. Brissett kept for one first down, threw for another on State’s 43; then heaved it long for Jumichael Ramos. Bryant had a read on the ball but miss-timed his jump, resulting in a completion on the three. On second down Brissett bulled over at 7:20 to make it a 10-point margin.
Some sort of response was mandatory, and the Bulldogs made it. Prescott dove for one first down, threw to Ross for two more to reach the Wolfpack 38; and on 4th-and-1 threw to Hutcherson for what should have been first and goal. But Wilson was called for blocking in the back, fortunately after the first down was earned.
So from the 22-yard line now, Prescott hit Wilson for a dozen and first-and-goal. The next play, Holloway slid out to the left for a soft flip and run to the pylon at 1:16. Graves was wide on the PAT leaving a 37-21 lead.
That was still the margin after swaps of punts got State the ball back at 10:23 of the fourth quarter, starting on their 44-yard line. Holloway gained one yard on a run; he got lots more on a catch. Prescott had time to notice Holloway matched on a linebacker and waited for the small back to get a stride in front. Prescott’s easy lob was hauled in across midfield and Holloway ran the rest of the way for a 45-yard touchdown at 9:41.
The win was in sight, only the margin mattered now. N.C. State battled across the midfield stripe before a 4th-and-10 incompletion with CB Cedric Jiles covering. Five plays later it was a 51-21 scoreboard as RB Aeris Williams did the honors, darting through the middle for a 33-yard dash and touchdown at 5:38
The Wolfpack did score some pride points before the evening ended, with a 17-play series ending on Samuels’ catch of a swing pass from a yard out. There was enough time left for Mississippi State to let Prescott take one more snap, hand off the ball one more time, and then make his exit at 0:30. Even opposing fans saluted one of the game’s greats, who soon after was accepting the MVP trophy.
Attendance was announced as 46,423 paid, though the weather kept a sizable segment away.