"Hard work pays off," Conner said. "We've been working on the passing game and tonight Coach let me throw the ball a little bit more. I took advantage of it and put the ball in my receivers' hands and they made plays."
Lots of plays for plenty of gains. Conner kicked off his campaign in style, completing 17 of 24 throws for 233 yards. None of his passes were picked off by the wrong team, and four balls ended up in the end zone with a trio of targets sharing the scoring. In the process Conner tied the mark set by Derrick Taite ten years ago against Memphis.
"He made the plays tonight," said Coach Sylvester Croom of his quarterback.
There were other Bulldog play makers and takers this evening, of course. Teammates had to catch those throws and six of them did, most notably redshirt freshman end Keon Humphries with five grabs for 98 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Flanker Will Prosser had five receptions of his own for 52 yards, while split end Tee Milons and tight end Eric Butler pulled in scoring balls.
And the ground game was hardly ignored as halfback Jerious Norwood notched the ninth 100-yard effort of his career, gaining 123 yards on just 16 attempts without ever losing an inch on any carry. When the numbers were crunched the Bulldogs had produced 482 yards and averaged 6.8 per snap. Meanwhile a defense that for a couple of quarters chased Murray State around settled down and did some crunching of their own, hobbling the Racers to 229 total yards and just 31 in the whole second half. The Dog D also created two timely turnovers that became fast offensive touchdowns and were the real momentum-turning points of the affair.
Still it was Conner's night to shine on the home field and he did. "Oh, man. I think I just came out and tried to make plays."
His coach agreed the quarterback made plays…then typically pointed to a couple of opportunities that got away in the first half when things were still competitive. "He made some plays but he's still not throwing as well as he can," said Croom, adding that one of Conner's touchdowns "was a real duck." But all that mattered was the result, and the final score, as Mississippi State got the season started right.
"I'm very happy with the win," Croom said. "This is one of those games going into a season you feel you have a chance to win, but you don't know." In fact for much of the opening pair of periods many home fans and even some Bulldogs were wondering if Murray State might turn the same visiting trick as Division I-AA Maine did last year in a monumental upset of the SEC host.
It didn't happen. Even after the Racers responded to an opening-drive Bulldog field goal with a go-ahead touchdown there was no panic on the MSU sideline. "Nah, nah, nothing like that," linebacker Quinton Culberson said. "It was like, if we don't step it up Coach Croom is going to step on us!"
The Bulldogs responded by stomping on the gas and running away from the Racers, scoring five unanswered touchdowns in just the second and third quarters to put the game in the ‘W' column and allow a host of backups and reserves to take care of the fourth period. When Croom noticed in that last quarter that all but one of the men in Maroon were first-time college participants, he could relax enough to enjoy the not one but two icewater baths given by defensive end Willie Evans and then Norwood.
But for a half Murray State was game, as a scrappy defense managed a few series-stops and got the ball back for Ken Topps. The quarterback, a Shannon native and one-time Mississippi State freshman, looked to make the most of his ‘homecoming' game and in the first and second quarters he bedeviled the Dog defense. "He gave us a run for our money early in the game," said defensive tackle Deljuan Robinson, who knew Topps well. "I played against him in high school, it was just a good challenge."
The shifty senior wasn't just fast but tough, as on the third play from scrimmage he cut back into the path of defensive tackle Andrew Powell for a wicked lick. Topps bounced back up and put in a superb half, hitting 11 of 14 passes for 144 yards by intermission. Time after time he seemed sure to go down, only to avoid sacks and produce positive yards in impossible situations.
"We had a hard time getting him on the ground," said Croom, who added that maybe the no-tackling-quarterbacks policy for MSU's defense in fall drills was a factor, at least at first. "Our guys hadn't been allowed to touch the quarterback since last season. But I thought we picked it up as the game went on and got a little more confidence."
Topps was his most confident early. His first series went 62 yards on 12 snaps; the second went 80 yards and into the end zone. After State's own offense began with a successful field-goal drive Topps scrambled away from a sack and flipped a short pass that Robbie Wize turned into a 50-yard gainer to the MSU 13, with safety Jeramie Johnson preventing a touchdown. Delaying it actually as on the next snap tailback Chad Cook bolted almost untouched up the middle for the score, though a missed PAT mean the margin was only 6-3.
Another escape act kept Murray State moving as far as the Bulldog 31-yard line, when the Racers made a strange call. Needing less than a yard for the first down they botched what looked like a halfback pass play that failed to come off for loss of yards and a punt that pinned State at the five-yard line at 12:10 of the second period.
The home MSU looked good in the opening drive, settling for the three-pointer when Prosser was tackled just shy of first-down yardage at the 21-yard line. Keith Andrews converted the 37-yard attempt at 4:07. The second possession ended in a punt but the third produced the first turning point. Norwood ran and Conner passed to move the ball to the 40-yard line where freshman Blake McAdams had to punt on 4th-and-4. Two flags flew on the kicking play; Everyone saw the downfield illegal block by a Racer; few could have noticed a hold at the line of scrimmage by Matt Webber. The outcome was crucial because as a pre-kick foul it meant a first down for the Bulldogs.
State made the most of the big break to change the game. Three Norwood rushes netted one first down at the Racer 41. The fourth snap began like the previous three but this time Conner faked the handoff and dropped back to look long. Post-patterning Milons had maybe half-a-step on Derrick Parrott and it was enough for Conner to drop the ball into the split end's hand at the five-yard line. Milons fell the rest of the way for the go-ahead touchdown at 6:55.
"We knew their secondary was going to play the run a lot," Milons said. "Coach told us to play like it was a run and then pop open."
That series changed the momentum; the next series accelerated things in State's favor. A pair of Topps throws netted 25 yards and Murray State got to their 46 when on third down Cook took a hard stick from Johnson. The ball came loose and Demario Bobo came in from behind for the recovery at the Racer 49-yard line with 4:51 left. The Racers called time, presumably hoping the replay officials would interject themselves into the action, but no review was called.
Maybe that break also gave the Bulldog staff time to change the first call from scrimmage. If so it was worth the wait, because Conner evaded pressure by rolling-right and heaving the ball downfield where Humphries had cut in from the left sideline and was battling with Paul Walker at the goal line. "I was just, ‘please throw it!'" Humphries said. The cornerback fell down as Humphries came back for the ball. "If I'd had my shotgun I'd have shot that one out of the air," Croom commented. "But he made the play, that's the bottom line."
"I didn't know where I was, I turned around and took it in the end zone," grinned Humphries.
Down 17-6 the Racers suddenly seemed lost, too, calling a pass on 3rd-and-one at midfield that missed with a Topps scramble could have kept the drive going. The air game had already turned against Murray State. "He was a great quarterback," safety Johnson said. "But he helped us out, because he mainly focused on the d-line and it helped us stay in our coverages and not come up and get deked."
During halftime Croom kept his troops motivated by calling up the specter of Maine again, and the Bulldogs must have taken that lesson to heart. They definitely took the opening kickoff 67 yards in six plays with Conner, falling away from the rush and throwing off his back foot, hitting Humphries in-stride for a 34-yard touchdown. The Dog defense sacked Topps to force a punt and 10 snaps later Conner rolled right and threw a hard slider that Butler pulled in a foot above the turf for a eight-yard scoring strike.
"I knew the game changed at the start of the second half when we stopped them three-and-out and got off the field," Culberson said. "Our offense took advantage."
If there was any remaining doubt of the outcome, it faded when freshman linebacker Jamar Chaney tipped a Topps throw that Culberson intercepted at the Racer 31-yard line. Croom let the second offensive backfield have this drive and redshirt halfback Demarcus Johnson carried six-straight times for all the yards and the touchdown, on a seven-yard burst. The series was directed by Mike Henig, and Murray State decided this was as good a time as any to change quarterbacks also with Ryne Saylor taking over most of the rest of the game.
Topps did not complete any of his three passes in the second half and finished with those 144 yards, being sacked twice. He netted 23 more yards on the ground, while Cook had 57 yards on 19 runs. The Racers missed their other halfback, as Nick Turner was suspended for the game and did not make the trip. The Bulldogs certainly missed not seeing their former 2002-03 tailback. "I was a little disappointed, I wanted to play my old teammate," said Culberson.
After the first quarter State made a defensive shift to get more speed on the line and that ultimately helped contain Topps if not put him down often enough. But holding a potent attack to just one touchdown was a good night's work by any account. And as for his offense? "It looked better than I expected, to be honest," Croom said. Certainly the Bulldogs looked great in those decisive second and third periods when the opening game of 2005 was won and done.
"I wanted to get this thing over with," said Croom. "I told the team at halftime that we'd been here, keep letting them hang around and it would be just like last year. So we thought we'd go out and try to put a nail in this coffin."