“It’s definitely nice to have a good game and finish the season strong,” Graves said.
The Bulldog junior did that. His 36-yard field goal in the fourth quarter gave Mississippi State both the first lead of the day, and the margin of 17-16 victory over Miami-Ohio. It also eased what had been a stinging season both for himself, and for his team.
“It’s great for us to get a win,” Graves said, “in kind of crazy fashion.”
Yeah. Crazy is a good word for it. Graves’ three-pointer made the difference first because Miami-Ohio had a PAT blocked in the second quarter. Then, with 0:14 remaining, a 37-yard field goal was blocked by State’s Nelson Adams and covered in the end zone by Cedric Jiles.
Graves is such a nice guy, as the Redhawks lined up for what would have been the game-winner, he did not wish ill for his counterpart. “I don’t pull for kickers to miss,” he admitted. But a block? That was what Graves asked for, and received.
Which meant he had delivered the margin of bowl victory after all. “It’s been a few weeks since I’ve made a field goal, I think Alabama was my last.” Of course in that blowout it was all the State scoring, too.
The bigger picture is simply that Graves has experienced—make that endured—a frustrating fall. He came to Tropicana Field just 10-of-18 on the year and 2-of-8 since September. A problematic back has only compounded his challenges.
Plus…there is the unerasable memory of Graves’ two missed tries in the fourth quarter of opening day. The second was clanked off the left pole as Mississippi State suffered an upset that spun everything out of control for weeks.
And yet, with State down two in the fourth quarter and facing 4th-and-6 at the Redhawk 19, Coach Dan Mullen didn’t hesitate.
“He called ‘field goal’ just like every other time he puts me out there and trusts me,” Graves said. “He knows what I can do and he’s believed in me all year.”
It says much for Graves that he not only had confidence to go out and try another one, but he was on an unfamiliar and in places odd surface. State and Miami-Ohio specialists had just a brief Sunday walk-through and their pre-game warmups to get a feel for the differing turf types.
The third base side was newer, Graves thought, but this meant a seam where that section joined the older turf on the right infield side. Fortunately he only had to work the far side once, on a made PAT. “It didn’t end up affecting me.”
Or his holder, who has had his own health issues in 2016. The month between Egg Bowl and St. Petersburg got Logan Cooke healed enough for his main job, with a fine 42.5 yard average; as well as receive Hunter Bradley’s snaps. Getting this three-man band back together for a season-ending act was good timing.
“Nick Tiano was a great holder and got better as the season went on,” Graves said. “But it’s definitely nice to have Logan, I’ve been with Logan three years kicking every day. It helps me just feel better, really.”
The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. That after opening day disaster, Mississippi State’s 2016 finale was put on Graves’ foot. He delivered.
“It was a tough season. I don’t like to talk about me but I just I’ve been about rock-bottom.” Faith and perseverance carried the kicker through those three hard months. Carried the entire Mississippi State ball team, for that matter, as three losses were decided literally on last plays divided evenly among the offense, defense, and specialist squads.
As Graves said, Mississippi State responded to adversity, earned another bowl berth under special circumstances, and rewarded the selection with a victory. Graves isn’t certain if he will be back for more in 2017 as his back is a real concern.
If this was it, well, it was all worth it.
“I think it couldn’t be a better way to end the season, and keep the momentum going for next year. It’s definitely good to contribute and win the bowl game.”