Early Forced Turnovers Spark State to Belk Bowl Victory

CHARLOTTE -- Their slow-starting issues are well-known. All too well-known. But in their last show of the 2015 season, The Bulldog defense started fast and rarely slowed as Mississippi State ran away from North Carolina State 51-28 to win the Belk Bowl.

“It was real exciting,” linebacker Beniquez Brown said. “You put it all into play to make sure we came out with a win.”

The Dogs did. Not least, because the defensive squad put it all into play instantly. And by instantly, how about forcing a first-play takeaway from a Wolfpack team which ranked 14th in the NCAA in turnover margin. By contrast, and for all their other strengths, getting the ball away from opponents has not been Mississippi State’s strong point in the regular season.

The post-season?

“We talked about we hadn’t been getting turnovers, we wanted to get the ball,” outside ‘backer Brown said. “The things they do are real tricky but we kind of knew what was coming.”

Yes, four days of installation on campus and four more in Charlotte gave the Dog defense a clear enough idea of how to attack the ‘Pack. As in, literally attack. There might have been games where State looked passive on defense in 2015. Not this time.

No, not even when days of weather turned BofA Stadium field into a soggy, boggy and just plain slow track. This ought have been an advantage for both offenses, more so North Carolina State with a versatile running game.

Brown admitted that there were fears for footing early on. “You know, you were kind of playing slow. You didn’t want to fall, you didn’t want to slip. So early in the game we really couldn’t get to him like we wanted to.

“But as the game went on field conditions really didn’t matter. We attacked and whatever happened, happened. Fortunately we got to him.”

‘Him’ as in Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Taller and heavier than even State’s physical triggerman Dak Prescott, the one-time Florida quarterback was going to be a load under any conditions. Brown grinned at the suggestion Brissett was more of the Chris Relf mold as a powerful and aggressive runner.

“Coach talked about how he’s really hard to get down, he’s a big guy,” Brown said. “And it didn’t make it any better because he was wet!”

However. Brissett immediately found out wet or dry he’d have to move smartly to escape. Because on the first snap from scrimmage, defensive end Johnathan Calvin chased Brissett into an under-thrown pass that Bulldog linebacker Gerri Green, making his first start, got his hands under just in time.

“It was a great play, just the way to set the tone,” said Brown. “Me and Richie (Brown, middle linebacker) talked about it before the play. And Calvin did a great job getting to the quarterback.”

Prescott quickly converted the turnover into a touchdown pass. About ten game-minutes later, it was safety Brandon Bryant making an amazing leaping, tapping and grabbing one-handed interception of Brissett. That turnover too became a Bulldog touchdown.

It was exactly the fast start this Dog defense had sought against good competition, or even average offenses, all season. Brown said it wasn’t even game planning and practicing that made it happen. The entire team benefitted from a healthy Christmas break.

“So when we came back we were excited and just ready to play. We didn’t want to lose another bowl game. We wanted to come out and finish on top and send those seniors out the right way.”

Junior Brown did his part on one excellent play. With a 14-0 lead to protect, the defense yielded a ten-play drive reaching the 32-yard line with fourth-and-one. State called time before the Wolfpack play, which had receiver Bra’lon Cherry take a handoff on a quick sweep-left.

There did seem to be a seam…except Brown was able to drag Cherry down. “It was just making sure I watched the right keys, as coaches told me the last two weeks. I kind of expected it, because the last couple of times they ran inside plays and we stopped them. So I expected something to come outside. Kivon Coman was outside and had my leverage, I just shot my gun.”

The initial ruling was Cherry had made the mark, but review showed he had not extended the ball as Brown caught him from behind. Brown himself saw no replay. “They didn’t really show it, I just felt like I did.”

“I’m glad it fell our way, that was kind of a momentum swing for the rest of the game.” It was. Though North Carolina State did chop the lead down to 21-14, the deficit was too great to overcome on just a pair of home-run hits.

“Those two touchdowns were miscues by us, miscommunication that we normally didn’t have,” Brown said. “We got together and believed in each other and ran to the ball and it didn’t happen again.” Indeed, despite two more Wolfpack touchdowns the Bulldog lead stayed double-digits after halftime.

And Brown? He not only led the Dog defense with seven tackles, he was also tops in sacks by bagging Brissett two of the five times State dropped him.

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