Emergency Center Start Produces Near-Perfect Play and a Touchdown Too

CHARLOTTE -- The last time he snapped a football in a real game? “Never,” Justin Malone said. Alright then. When was the last time he scored a touchdown? “Today!”

Well, then. Give Malone points, literally, for saving his very best for his very last college game. Because on his final evening as a Bulldog blocker, this senior not only started and played all the way at an unprecedented position. He also put points on his team’s scoreboard, same as an runner or catcher in the Belk Bowl.

Key points, too. Because when quarterback Dak Prescott had the ball knocked free at the goal line, Mississippi State was only leading by one touchdown and had seen North Carolina State rally from a 21-0 deficit. Malone’s alert recovery put momentum back on the Bulldog side and sent State on to its 51-28 victory.

Funny thing, though. Malone’s larger story wasn’t his touchdown. It was the routine stuff of center-ing…which for the fifth-year senior was not at all routine. Yes, he has practiced center; all guards and some tackles do at Mississippi State, just in case.

But in 37 previous varsity games, 28 of them starts, all were at guard. Left guard to be specific to 2014 and ’15. Malone did see emergency duty as a left tackle mid-season due to an injury. He never was called to hike the football though…

…or not until starter Jamaal Clayborn hurt his left foot during the very first hour Mississippi State worked out in Charlotte. Coach Dan Mullen tried to keep Clayborn’s status as possible.

Malone figured otherwise.

“We knew pretty quickly. Because Jamaal went down the first practice. So (Coach John) Hevesy just looked at me and was like, ‘you’re taking snaps!’ Alright!”

He wasn’t saying it with enthusiasm, now. Startled surprise is more like it. “Yeah, I’ve practiced it all season. But I’ve never taken a snap in the game,” Malone said.

“I’ve always been a tackle and a guard since I’ve been in high school, since I’ve been here. Today was my first day playing center.” Oh and remember, Malone did not even play a lot of prep football in the first place. Basketball was his first sport back then.

Those regular-season reserve snaps weren’t enough to truly ready Malone for North Carolina State’s aggressive defensive front, anyway. So bowl camp was a blur.

“I spent all week learning how to do different things, talking about the defense, all that stuff. When it came back (Clayborn) had what’s wrong with his foot, it was well, you’re our starting center. You’ve got to be able to play. Nobody cares you haven’t played it before.”

Oh and just for good measure, days of wet weather guaranteed Bank of America Stadium’s field was going to be soaked, and the grass un-cut. It would be difficult to set-up a more challenging scenario to throw a first-timer into any position, much less the one whose priority was getting Dak Prescott the ball cleanly every time.

Guess what? Malone darned nearly did. The revamped front line, with right guard Devon Desper moving to Malone’s spot and Deion Calhoun stepping in at right guard, might have had its best all-around performance of the entire season. Under unpromising conditions, too.

The soggy, boggy surface was not a problem at all. Malone said everyone just had to get that first foot placement down solid and go from there. As for the Wolfpack defense, their line was stymied all evening and even blitzes failed to pressure Prescott often.

“I think we handled them well,” Malone said. “We only gave up one sack, a couple of hurries. But we moved them off the ball, we gave Dak time, we gave the receivers time to make plays. We opened holes. It’s something they can build on going into next season.”

For his own part, Malone handled hiking with such poise he seemed to have been snapping forever.

“One was loose, it went wide right.” That was in the third quarter, which Prescott snagged anyway. “And Dak looked at me, ‘Malone!’ I was alright, I’ll fix it. And it was the only bad snap.”

“Even if it’s something you haven’t done before you can’t be tense, you’re going to have bad snaps and missed assignments. Just calm down and do what you have to do.”

Malone did that. And more. Going back to the second quarter, with State seeking to recover momentum after losing two-thirds of its fast lead. Eight plays had the ball on N.C. State’s one-yard line with third down. Prescott bulled straight ahead into the pile behind Malone and got to the line…

…only to lose control. Malone was standing straight-upright in the end zone when he happened to look at his feet. Fortunately.

“Oh, I thought Dak was in. So when I saw the ball rolling on the ground I said better make sure, if they say it’s not. So I just picked it up.” Simple as that. No diving or grasping, Malone mere leaned over and picked up a loose ball. And thus, though Prescott got the carry and the yard, it was Malone who will forevermore be credited with the six points.

Mississippi State has had a ‘big boy touchdown’ already this year, but it was on defense. Tackle Nelson Adams recovered a Troy fumble in their end zone forced. Malone got one for his group.

“There’s goes a touchdown for an offensive lineman! It’s been a great year!”

And, an ending so great for Malone that script writers wouldn’t dare suggest such a last-game story. If he waited five years to shine in an entirely-new position, do it near-perfectly in a bowl victory, and get a touchdown to boot, well, it was all worth it.

All of it, Malone emphasizes. He’ll admit now how close he was to not even surviving a freshman season, much less settling into a long and winning career.

“When I first got here I was coming from a small high school (an academy, really). I went through my first workout and immediately thought I couldn’t do it. I wanted to quit, I wouldn’t leave. And Dak wouldn’t let me.” Yes, consider that irony after how the quarterback and new center teamed-up in their last Bulldog evening.

Now, Malone, Prescott, and all those seniors have bowed-out in winning style. They had to, Malone said.

“It was very important because we didn’t finish the regular season the way we wanted to. So we wanted to go out as champions, at the top of our game. To win tonight was a big thing."

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