Nelson Adams and Cory Thomas teamed to tag Miami-Ohio’s 37-yard field goal attempt, and save a 17-16 Mississippi State victory on Tropicana Field. The SEC Bulldogs ended an unlikely game, and season for that matter, at 6-7 and with the fifth bowl win of Coach Dan Mullen’s seven post-season appearances.
The Redhawks, a national comeback story after winning six-straight games to earn a bowl berth, left 6-7. But at 0:14 and with the ball centered for Nick Dowd the MAC club was poised for the upset. Dowd did hit the ball straight, but low.
Low enough for Nelson to make first contact and Thomas to deflect it on into the end zone were CB Cedric Jiles recovered at 0:05. It took close review to properly credit Nelson, and in post-game even Mullen wondered. “Is there proof?” he quipped.
“Yeah, I blocked it. I felt it!” Adams responded. Yet the senior defensive tackle was not at all surprised to get a paw on the ball as he pushed up the middle.
“We’d noticed on film the kicker kicked line-drives. All that was going through my mind was get my hands up.” Which was exactly what Thomas, on his left shoulder, was also doing as the ball caromed into his left hand.
“I told myself come off as fast as you can, I raised my arm as high as I can go and I tipped it.”
Further frustrating the Redhawks was how in the second quarter, after their first touchdown, Dowd’s point-after attempt was blocked by DE Jonathan Calvin. Not only did it affirm Mississippi State’s scheming, but it proved to be Miami’s margin of defeat.
Or, Mississippi State’s margin of victory. The official go-ahead points came, in further irony, off the foot of PK Westin Graves. His 36-yard field goal at 12:03 of the fourth quarter gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the contest.
“I’m happy, I promise you,” RB Aeris Williams said. “I wanted to blow them out of course, but we fought to the end and that’s all that matters right there.”
Winning another bowl trophy mattered to Mullen, who credited underdog Miami for “A great game. Maybe not exactly the way we drew it up.” The Redhawks weren’t at all intimidated, playing hard and aggressive and without any hesitation on either side. The defense hit Bulldogs as hard as any time this season.
The offense, that did go as the Redhawks drew it up. “Slowing the tempo way, way down,” Mullen said. “Keeping us out of rhythm offensively, limiting the number of plays we had. At times you could say it affected us.”
It clearly did in the first quarter with Miami out-snapping and out-gaining the Dog considerably. The deficit was just 3-0 on a short Dowd field goal, though Miami later likely regretted kicking on 4th-and-goal at the one-yard line.
In the second period quarterback Gus Ragland directed a couple of crisp drives. The first ended on a fumbled catch forced by CB Jamal Peters and recovered by LB Richie Brown.
On the second, Ragland got a left-side matchup of 6-4 James Gardner on shorter Bulldog Peters for a corner-catch at 8:36. This was the PAT blocked by Calvin which also would loom large later.
Mississippi State had practiced well but played poorly for most of the first half. “There were times we had ten guys doing the right thing, and one guy missed his assignment,” QB Nick Fitzgerald said. “It took us a while but we finally got our rhythm and started rolling.”
Finally as in on the last drive before halftime. The 64-yard series took nine snaps with Fitzgerald running for 17 yards for one first down; and hitting Williams on a perfect sideline strike for 24 more. After a Miami timeout Fitzgerald still found TE Farrod Green on 3rd-and-8 at the four-yard line. Two snaps later Fitzgerald took it across himself as the left side of the line shoved everyone right and out of his way.
The Bulldogs could have set the second half tone but a couple of incomplete deep balls showed the offense still wasn’t entirely in synch. Miami made it hurt worse with their own touchdown drive of 85 yards, with TE Ryan Smith slipping past frozen coverage for a one-yard catch in back of the end zone at 8:11.
This time the Bulldogs answered. With third-and-one on the Redhawk 44 Fitzgerald kept to the right end, and behind TE Justin Johnson's block got down the sideline. He shed the lone defender with a shot and scored his second touchdown of the day to make it 16-14.
The Dog defense came up with a key stop, as Miami went for 4th-and-13 on State’s 30. Ragland had the receiver at the right distance, but CB Jamoral Graham read it right and came over underneath for the interception at the nine-yard line. It was the first pick of Ragland’s season, and the break State needed. Fitzgerald ran for 26 yards and had 15 more awarded on a targeting foul.
But a blocking call against RT Justin Senior nipped the drive. So Fitzgerald did well to move it back 19 yards closer for Graves to hit the go-ahead kick. The Bulldogs even had a chance to ice this one after Miami made a curious 4th-and-1 call of their own. On the State 32, with the run game working well and breaking tackles, Ragland threw up the right side for big Alexx Zielinski.
There was enough contact both ways to merit a flag but the CUSA crew let the play go for an incompletion.
The Bulldogs were one more first down from likely sealing it at the Redhawk 21. Fitzgerald’s helmet came off clean on the third-down keeper, and he hurt his right foot as well. QB Damian Williams was rushed in, without a timeout to talk it over, and while he escaped the rush his pass play failed as he couldn’t pick between two targets.
That gave the Redhawks their last chance at 3:29. One more of many tight end targetings worked to put the ball at the State 17, where a couple of keepers spotted it as Dowd wanted. It looked to be a fourth time Mullen’s team would lose on a last play by one team.
Yet, “Honestly, I thought we were going to block the kick,” said Mullen. “We were due.” That faith was shared, too.
“Coach Mullen knew we were going to block the kick, he’d just said it,” Adams said. “So everybody was pretty confident we were going to block it.”
Miami-Ohio still came out ahead on the stat sheet, 433 yards to 335 and averaging 6.6 per snap. Ragland was outstanding, 21-of-29 for 257 yards with the two touchdowns and first interception. He also ran for 51 yards while Kenny Young gashed State’s front seven for 67 on nine attempts. Big targets Smith and Gardner combined for 12 balls and 164 yards against over-matched and smaller Dog defenders.
“Obviously we could have played better,” said Brown. “But when we needed we make the big plays, and that’s what counted.”
If Fitzgerald wasn’t efficient, he was clutch. He ran for (later corrected) 132 net yards on 18 tries, most called. His 99 second-half yards also hinted he ought have been told to keep more and throw long less. His 13-of-26 completion rate was in no small part due to many, many dropped balls by open receivers. Most notably, the play after he’d been helmet-targeted in the fourth period, where the throw was a little high but WR Fred Ross didn’t time his jump well either.
Ross still accounted for four catches and 44 of Fitzgerald’s 126 passing yards. Williams rushed for 64 yards on 12 totes, as he and Fitzgerald combined to average 6.5 yards per carry.
“We had some missed passes, some dropped balls, missed some opportunities,” Mullen said. “Even the umpire got in on the action and knocked a ball down on fourth down.” He referred to a second-quarter situation with State at the Miami 34 and Ross open down the middle. Fitzgerald nicked Mike Moten instead.
Yet bad breaks and missed chances didn’t doom the Dogs this time. In a season of strange bounces and lost opportunities, Mississippi State came through on the last plays of the last day of this 2016 season.
“We kept believing in the plan,” senior Brown said. “And it turned out pretty good.”