Johnson recovered his own forced fumble and gained control at the 40-yard line. The play held up on review and Georgia didn't have to snap again. The home Dogs snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 6-2, 3-2 SEC, while the visiting Bulldogs left 2-6, 0-4 SEC…and frustrated by the close call.
"We played good," said Henig. "That's why it hurts so bad."
Defeat stung all the more as State had an entirely realistic shot at the first SEC road win in four years. The Dogs had rallied from 21-7 and 27-17 deficits, and after getting the ball back with less than a minute on the clock Henig made pass plays to Jamayel Smith (24 yards) and Tony Burks (34 yards) to get in decent field goal range with 24 ticks still to complete the comeback. Coach Sylvester Croom made it clear, his first objective was to go for the W and only play overtime as a last resort.
"We're going for the throat, especially on the road," Croom said. "We thought we'd take two shots at the end zone."
The first misfired as Henig threw to the left side of the end zone where only defensive back Kelin Johnson had a play, nearly intercepting. That left a dozen seconds for the other shot and even with no timeouts in the worst case Croom expected to have five or so seconds to set up a placekick if Henig just got rid of the ball. "You don't get sacked, you to strictly to the end zone, or throw it away and kick a field goal."
State lined up with triple-wides on the left, and Henig rolled right. He said Smith was "wide open" in the end zone, but… "He (Johnson) hit me as I was throwing." Just in case someone thought the throwing arm had been swinging forward the play was reviewed, with State's placekick team on the field just in case. But review confirmed what looked obvious to both sidelines, a clean sack and game-ending turnover.
"It hurts worse like this," Burks said. "The game could have gone either way. It was right there and we just couldn't finish it."
To most of the crowd of (officially but really nowhere near) 92,746 at Sanford Stadium this game likely looked finished when Georgia took a two-touchdown lead at intermission. The Georgians broke a 7-7 tie after one period with a couple of second-quarter drives directed by quarterback Matt Stafford. The true freshman made a most impressive throw on 4th-and-1 at State's 21-yard line, hitting tight end Tripp Chandler at the left pylon over Bulldog LB Gabe O'Neal for a 14-7 lead at 7:20. Two series later on 3rd-and-10 at MSU's 35 he hooked up with wideout Mohammed Massaqoui on consecutive throws to the same side of the field of 24 and then 11 yards for the 21-7 halftime lead.
It was the sort of SEC-situation State hasn't handled well. Or as Croom said, "In the past two years a Mississippi State football team would have gotten beat 50-7 out there. When we got down 21-7 we showed some guts and character on the road and didn't give up."
Instead, aided by Georgia penalties, the Bulldogs got the field position advantage to open the last half. They showed further resilience after blowing a chance for a quick score when Henig's perfect bullet to tight end Eric Butler caromed into an interception at the Georgia six-yard line. Instead the Dog defense kept composure and followed instructions. "Coming out the second half Coach said make plays," cornerback Derek Pegues said. He did just that, intercepting Stafford's first-snap strike just across midfield.
"I knew they were fixing to go deep on me," said Pegues, who had another interception in the first quarter. "I got in position and made a play on the ball." The Bulldog offense turned the tables by using Georgia's transition-play principle of striking instantly, with Henig finding Burks for 45 yards to the five-yard line. HB Anthony Dixon got the remaining ground at 9:35, skipping over and running through tacklers for the touchdown.
After cashing in on a turnover the Dogs did it again, as FS Jeramie Johnson stripped Massaquoi after a catch and DT Antonio Johnson recovered at the Georgia 27 at 7:44. A sack of Henig ultimately meant settling for a 36-yard field goal from Adam Carlson at 5:28 and 21-17 margin. The Bulldogs briefly thought they'd taken a lead when Pegues knocked a seemingly-complete pass loose and DE Titus Brown ran it in, before an incompletion was ruled.
Georgia shook off the close call to produce the crucial points with a 10-play drive of 78 yards. Stafford came through on 3rd-and-14, getting enough time against a five-man rush to find Kenneth Harris free down the left numbers for a 33-yard gain to State's 48. Two more quick completions had the ball at the 20 and State calling for time. It didn't help and the timeout would be missed later. Because the quarter ended with 2nd-and-goal at the one-yard line.
Fullback Brannan Southerland took care of the remaining distance on the first snap of the final period to push the lead out to 27-17 as the PAT hit the post. Yet State still wasn't done, putting together a 80-yard drive. Twice Henig combined with Butler to convert, with a 21-yard strike on 3rd-and-8 and a 23-yard gain on 4th-and-5. Dixon got the last 15 yards on three hard runs, scoring on a blast from the three-yard line by carrying a tackler across the goal.
"They've been ragging me for two weeks how I couldn't get it in the end zone or get it on 3rd-and-1," Dixon said of his teammates. "I just wanted to show them I could!"
The touchdown came with 10:26 left, and State got the ball back on UG's fifth turnover as SS Keith Fitzhugh caught a Stafford overthrow at the Georgia 48-yard line. The Bulldogs had to punt it back and Blake McAdams' kick was downed at the four-yard line at 6:23. MSU could not stop the clock and the home team was able to burn off 5:38 by making two first downs, including a 3rd-and-4 completion of 21 yards to Harris in front of SS De'Mon Glanton at 4:33. So there was only 0:45 showing on that last chance series, sufficient time to set up the plays that State couldn't complete.
"I didn't think field goals were going to beat Georgia," Croom said. "We had to score touchdowns." As it turned out the Dogs could get neither.
"It really hurts, we had it won," said Henig.
A bold comment, but the Bulldogs certainly had their chances. The took the opening turn with the ball from their 20-yard line to Georgia's 30, converting on 4th-and-1 en route. But facing 4th-and-2 State chose neither to go for a first down or field goal, judging it out of Carlson's range. "We were going to go for it then I changed my mind," Croom said, choosing to pooch-punt to the 11-yard line. Such discretion looked wise shortly as Jeramie Johnson knocked his first forced-fumble from Mikey Henderson and recovered at the 27-yard line.
Except Henig and Burks weren't working off the same page; the receiver turned in on an out-throw intercepted by Tra Battle. He ran it back 53 yards to the MSU 40 before OT J.D. Hamilton knocked him out. On third down Stafford and Harris hooked up for 41 yards, with a facemask call moving it to the MSU two. Kregg Lumpkin went left side for the touchdown.
But when Stafford tried to burn Pegues long the cornerback jumped in front for a pickoff at the MSU 42 and return all the way to Georgia's 13. Starting HB Brandon Thornton bounced for eight yards before Dixon crashed right guard at 0:43. It was also the first offensive touchdown in a first quarter by State this season.
Dixon finished with three touchdowns and 37 yards on 12 totes. Thornton produced 50 yards on 15 carries. It was Henig's arm that provided most of MSU's movement as he completed 14 of 31 throws for a career-high 234 yards. He was intercepted twice and sacked three times. Burks caught four balls for 106 yards, but Henig used six other targets as well distributing the ball to both wideouts, tight end Butler, and his running backs.
Stafford was even more efficient, with 20 of 32 throws caught by his teammates for 267 yards and a couple of scores. He was never sacked, but did toss three picks and had two other completions fumbled away. "We've been struggling a little defending the pass and everybody sees that as a weakness," Pegues said. "They exploited it a little bit but we made some plays, we caused like five turnovers in the secondary."
"I'm very proud of our football team," said Croom. "We showed a lot of heart and a lot of character. We had a chance to win it all the way down to the last play." A play that a more experienced team could have made…and that all these Dogs insist they should have made anyway.
"It feels like if we went back out there and did it again we would win," Henig said.