Bulldogs celebrate, turn attention to Memphis

For the first time this season, the sun is again shining brightly on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come!<P> The Bulldogs, down and out as they were, got up off the canvas Saturday and delivered a knockout blow, ending their season-opening skid with a solid 30-21 victory over Vanderbilt in a pivotal SEC duel at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field.

It didn't come easy, or without a price, but the veterans and young players alike, took a little time following the hard-hitting engagement, to reflect on some things, and try to get in the right frame of mind to go out next week, and play hard, and have fun, and hopefully, post another win.

No doubt, the win over a pretty good Vanderbilt team is a good start. There was a sigh of relief and a big cheer when Mississippi State defensive back Eric Fuller batted away Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cuter's pass on 4-and-9 in the final seconds, for all intents sealing the long-awaited victory.

There was a lot of hugging and embracing after the game and it wasn't all by the fans - the broad-shoulder guys who made it happen, the players who refused to give up when some could see the season slipping away - they were celebrating, too!

Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said hopefully this is the first step toward getting back on track.

"We still have a long ways to go. There's a lot of frustration, a lot of things built up inside the players. But this is the first step to have a chance to move forward. We have to go one game at a time and move on."

Maroon and White diehards began to chant with the game on the line: "Defense, defense, defense" ... especially down the stretch, and it became obvious the fans were behind the 'Dogs, the coaches and the staff, for many of them their school.

Mississippi State senior linebacker T. J. Mawhinney said he heard the fans, so did sophomore defensive back Darren Williams, and they both said it meant a lot to the players on the field.

"I'm really proud of the defense," said Mawhinney. "The defensive line made most of the plays against the run. I thought Tommy Kelly played well. He played well last week (LSU). They (Vanderbilt) made a couple of deep plays, but when you've got a team in 2nd-and-9, and 3rd-and-8 it helps."

Mawhinney said the offense made "good plays." He said Justin Jenkins (SEC's leading receiver with 7.4 receptions per game) had his "usual great game."

The 6-1, 235-pound bruising tackler of Madisonville, La., said the interception by Odell Bradley and 42-yard return, setting up a five-yard TD run by quarterback Kevin Fant, and putting the Dogs up 27-14 late in the third quarter was "probably one of the biggest plays of the game."

The win snapped a nine-game overall and SEC losing streak for the Bulldogs who represented the league in the 1998 SEC Championship game at Atlanta, Ga.

Mississippi State sophomore running back Jerious Norwood, a Parade All-American and a prized recruit out of Brandon, Miss., may have said it best.

"That first win feels good and I just thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to get my first touchdown," said Norwood, making his first career start, one he'll remember for a long time.

A likable young man with an exciting running style, Norwood said, "coach told us to 'go out there and have fun,' and we did."

The 6-0, 192-pound speedster who has amazingly quick feet and can change directions in a split second, scored the first touchdown of his career, a five-yard run with 10:50 remaining in the first quarter to serve notice the Dogs had not abandoned their running game after a loss to nationally-ranked LSU in the conference opener.

Norwood rambled for 10 yards and a first down on his first carry of the game against the Commodores and finished with 113 net yards on 22 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. His career-high was last year when he ran for 138 yards against Kentucky.

Norwood said he was impressed with the defense which held the 'Dores to 95 yards rushing on 39 carries, a 2.4 ypc average.

"(You) can't win with offense only," said Norwood.

Sherrill has said on more than one occasion that it's not a big thing whether Norwood or sophomore teammate Nick Turner start.

"Flipping a coin to determine who's going to start would probably work for both of 'em. They're friends and they cheer for each other," he said.

There were noticeable improvements for all to see in the three phases of the game - offense, defense, and kicking game - although there were some breakdowns.

Jenkins, who had eight catches for 118 yards and a TD, said he's going to celebrate this victory for awhile.

"It is something we have been working hard for, especially for the young guys," he said. "As a team, we have been hungry for a win. This win is going to excite everyone, and I think it will be a big step toward the rest of the season.

"We needed this. We came out and put it all together for four quarters. Today the offense and defense made plays, and it showed."

Mississippi State got off to an excellent start on the gorgeous day, marching for a touchdown on its opening possession. It marked MSU's first points of the season in the first quarter. Fant made a lot of plays for the Dogs, mixed the pass with the run, first going in the air to Jenkins and then on the ground to Norwood.

The Bulldogs, as they had done in their SEC opener last week, stopped the opposition on their first possession. Kelly forced a fumble by Vandy's Cutler with the ball rolling out of bounds at the 'Dores' two-yard line. One play later Vandy was punting.

Fant connected with Jenkins on a nine-yard toss to launch the drive from the Vandy 41, and five plays later, Norwood ran five yards for the score to cap the drive with 10:50 remaining in the quarter. The balanced attack helped set the tone for the remainder of the contest.

The Bulldogs took a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter on a 15-yard scoring toss by Fant to Jenkins with 1:40 remaining in the period before Vandy got on the boards. Fant finished going 18-of-30 through the air for 215 yards with one interception.

Mississippi State (1-4, 1-1 SEC) generated 418 yards total offense with 215 coming through the air and 203 on the ground, avoiding a first-ever 0-5 start. Vanderbilt (1-4, 0-3) had 390 yards, passing for 295 yards and rushing for 95.

The one negative aspect of the game was when talented redshirt freshman offensive lineman Otis Riddley 6-1, 340) injured his ankle on the Dogs' first offensive series and will be out for the remainder of the season.

"The offensive line did a good job early," said Sherrill. "It hurt us when we lost Otis Riddley (ankle injury). Donovan Davis practiced well this week and did a good job coming in. He's a very intelligent young man."

The effort, the energy and resolve was apparent. Even the fans, a crowd of over 40,000, got into the game. It was a great turnout considering the rocky road the Dogs have been on the past couple of weeks. But there's now hope again. That's the thing about football and life: There's always hope.

NOTES: In pregame ceremonies before the Vanderbilt-Mississippi State SEC game, three of the biggest names in Mississippi State sports - Will Clark and Jeff Brantley (all-time great Diamond Dogs) and the "Voice of the Bulldogs" Jack Cristil - were inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame. Mississippi State continues its current homestand hosting Memphis next Saturday. The Tigers, who earlier defeated Ole Miss, were surprised by UAB, 24-10 in their last outing.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at sdnsport@netdoor.com

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