Picking up the pace on offense, not to mention picking off some Massachusetts passes on defense, proved Mississippi State’s secret for 47-35 success. Down 14-13 at intermission, the Bulldogs ran up 28 third-quarter points to take control of the non-conference game. State left Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium 2-2, while the host Minutemen are 1-3.
“I think our team willed themselves to get a win there in the second half,” Coach Dan Mullen said.
Bulldog bodies were capable but spirits did seem weak, or at least indecisive, in a frustrating first half. Despite dominating the stat sheet in snaps, yardage, time, third- and fourth-down conversions, Mississippi State was trailing at the break. And very nearly trailing by two scores to a Massachusetts squad not at all intimidated by their SEC guests.
UMass back Marquis Young rattled the Bulldogs with an 83-yard touchdown run, between a pair of field goals from State’s PK West Graves. This still was no reason for serious concern…until Jalen Williams came down on his back in the Bulldog end zone with a 31-yard pass from Andrew Ford.
A 14-6 score was concerning to say the least. More so was the lopsided stat sheet that belied the scoreboard with missed plays on both sides of the squad. “We left guys wide-open, we give up sacks, we drop balls,” Mullen said. “We don’t score in the red zone. It’s all us.”
But. This was when Mississippi State changed everything beginning with the offense. On its seventh turn with the ball, and with only 1:48 left, there was no choice but punch the pace. It worked, despite beginning with a false-start that maybe hinted at a new sense of hurry.
“We got on the ball fast, we got things going,” WR Fred Ross said. “It was hard for the defense to keep up. And we made some big plays down the stretch.”
Fitzgerald got it going with throws for 11 and 13 yards, and converted 3rd-and-4 with a 14-yard keeper. WR Donald Gray gained 17 on another reception for first-and-goal at the UMass nine, and Fitzgerald called hike quickly. Ross caught the throw right at the goal line and fell forward, apparently short. But a touchdown was signaled and not overturned.
What was overturned was the game’s tenor. “The two-minute drive, that’s a tempo we know we can play at and we should be playing at,” Fitzgerald said.
The offense kept playing fast in the new half. It didn’t produce points the first turn but did put field position in State’s favor. Fitzgerald sparked another touchdown drive with his 14-yard keeper, and after a UMass interference call for free first down he threw to Ross on the left sideline. Ross had a first down distance but spun off Colbert Calhoun and broke free for a 46-yard touchdown play at 9:05.
The challenge wasn’t over just yet. State defensive backs had barely deflected a couple of touchdown tosses early in the half. Ford didn’t give them a chance on a 68-yard drive which included his escape of NT Nelson Adams’ grasp for a clutch throw to Williams. Going back to Williams again was obvious and the wideout for a second time worked that left-front pylon for an acrobatic touchdown catch against CB Lashard Durr.
But the Bulldogs weren’t rattling any more. A clutch 48-yard kickoff return by RB Brandon Holloway spotted State on the UMass 44. Even another false-start didn’t stop things. Fitzgerald ran and threw for 39 combined yards, then pitched to RB Aeris Williams going right.
“It went just like practice,” Williams said. “Coach told me in practice we had to go through a 45-degree cut. I took my 45-degree cut, cut back outside, and scored. It was just beautiful.” TE Justin Johnson screened off the last Minuteman defender for a 16-yard touchdown play and 27-21 lead. Which almost immediately became 34-21 as Ford overthrew his intended target.
CB Jamoral Graham was perfectly positioned for the easy catch. “It came to me and I did what I had to do.” Which was run it all the way back, 38 yards for a defensive touchdown.
State’s offense even ran another sort-of two-minute drill before the quarter was done. Taking over on their 39 with 2:02 left they used all but seven seconds in scoring again as Fitzgerald found TE Farrod Green in back of the end zone.
The 41-21 margin was much more meaningful as UMass didn’t fold. Ford directed drives of 15 and nine yards for fourth-quarter touchdowns to get the Minutemen within upset range again. Fitzgerald kept the offense calm, using his running backs to muscle the ball ahead before hitting Ross again for 29 yards. With first down on the UMass 12, RB Ashton Shumpert broke clean round left end for touchdown at 2:33. An odd two-point play call didn’t work.
But DE Jonathan Calvin made it meaningless when Ford tried throwing over the middle on first down. “I read him all the way, I was waiting on that.” His interception sealed State’s win.
It was also the third forced turnover for the Dog defense. Calvin and S Brandon Bryant tied for the tackles lead at nine, and State finished with 6.0 stops for losses. Ford was 24-of-40 for four touchdowns and 273 yards against his three picks. Young was the workhorse with 125 yards on 18 runs and a score.
Bulldog yardage was as balanced as it can get; 299 rushing on 47 combined carries with two touchdowns, then 299 passing yards with three scores. The three tailbacks combined for 167 yards on 26 carries with almost half from RB Brandon Holloway 10 for 80 yards. Fitzgerald was 25-of-38 passing and took only one sack, though he had a first-quarter fumble on the UMass 37. That was offset by a team-high 110 running yards, most called keepers, on 15 tries.
“I thought he did OK, managed the game OK,” Mullen said. “He missed some throws and some checks. But he did enough for us to win.”
Most importantly, Fitzgerald and his offense just changed the pace and the game with one well-run series. Maybe the Bulldogs would have come out ahead anyway. But what happened right before halftime made it much, much simpler.
“It was more of a show that we can do this every drive,” Fitzgerald said. “The drives before that, why didn’t we do this? It was more a confidence boost.”