"For us to come out the second and half and show we wanted to beat them, that's something we needed to do," said quarterback Mike Henig, who was 5-of-5 passing in the evening's decisive drive. "We came out, played hard, and put it in the end zone. Since I've been here I don't remember us coming out and scoring on that first drive after halftime, and putting a nail in the coffin."
If Tulane probably didn't guess they were in the box at that point they soon knew for certain. Once the Bulldogs got control in the second half this game was over. The offense added two more scores, both on runs by halfback Anthony Dixon, while the Dog defense shut the Green Wave down and out. Tulane managed only six net offensive yards in the last two quarters on 16 snaps, with no first downs much less points.
The margin of MSU victory could have been worse, had State not settled for literally running out the clock and game. The backup offense ate up the final eight minutes all on the ground, getting to Tulane's red zone for the final snap.
"I'm proud of them for the way we played, I thought we competed the entire ball game," Croom said. "The best thing was we came out the second half and put the game on ice. We finished the deal."
A deal that remained very much un-done after a wild first half. In fact the Green Wave had more yards and offensive points at intermission, and if not for tossing a turnover that became State's opening touchdown Tulane might have been in position to bid for a second-straight win over MSU. "I knew Tulane was going to come out tough," said Dixon. "It was their season-opener and they beat us last year." Not this year though. Not once Henig had directed a precise go-ahead drive, the defense clamped down on Tulane back Matt Forte…and Dixon got his own ground game up to second-half speed.
The sophomore, held to ‘just' 48 yards at halftime, broke the century after three periods and finished with a career-best 141 on 27 carries with touchdowns of 27 and seven yards. "I was telling myself the whole game stick with it, stick with it, keep pounding and don't get frustrated like last week. Sooner or later it broke open."
Henig had a break-out evening of his own, completing 20 of 31 throws (65%) for 223 yards and a touchdown. The junior did have one throw intercepted, on his second series. But this turnover didn't detour Henig from the game-goal.
"It was a must for us. Well, it was a must for me," he said. "It showed what we could do. We got in an attack offense and that's what we plan to do the rest of the season." Henig not only threw for a score, he ran 18 yards for a touchdown himself and netted 23 ground yards. He also mixed throws to well-matched receivers, hitting ten targets in all. Jamayel Smith and Tony Burks each had four grabs and four more Dogs had a pair of receptions.
"We got some guys who can catch the ball and know how to get open," Henig said. State finished with 489 yards to Tulane's 243. Wave quarterback Scott Elliott threw for 197 of that, 15-of-26 with a touchdown and interception as well. But versatile back Matt Forte, who rambled for 170 ground yards last year at Scott Field, was kept in-check most of the time. After breaking a 39-yard touchdown in the first period, the senior ended up with just 47 net yards along with 49 yards on six catches.
"They tried to basically get the edge on us, get Forte out in open space," said defensive end Titus Brown. "We hunkered down and made some plays up front."
Or farther back as in the first touchdown play when Elliott tried to flare a throw out to Jeremy Williams. Cornerback Anthony Johnson batted the throw up, where oncoming O'Neal was unexpected waiting. "I saw it in like slow-motion!" he said. "I just went and got it and took off, praying nobody was going to catch me!" Nobody did for the 47 yards it took to get to the end zone at 13:50.
"It sure makes life easier when you get seven points early, no matter how you get it, particularly on the road," Croom said. Yet Tulane was able to answer quickly enough, starting on the home 39-yard line. Pass interference from Jamar Chaney got the ball across midfield. On third-and-three Forte took the pitch left, got around the corner and safety De'Mon Glanton, and raced down the sideline 39 yards for the tying touchdown at 12:16. "We had a missed assignment on that," O'Neal explained.
State's first offensive turn did nothing, and the second went worse as Henig's throw across the middle for Tony Burks was tipped and intercepted. The gaffe was negated as Titus Brown stripped Forte for a fumble recovered by O'Neal at MSU's 44-yard line. Henig shook off his first bad break and on third down connected with Aubrey Bell for 33 yards to the Wave 19.
"The first interception I felt a little aggravated. But I knew I was going to come back, and we did some good things." On another third down State's formation had all wideouts on the left side so under pressure Henig rolled that way…and saw nobody in front. A single pump-fake served to freeze most pursuit and the quarterback had a clear run to the left pylon for the first rushing touchdown of his career and a 14-7 Bulldog lead.
Which didn't last long, even though Tulane's ensuing series started with a nine-yard sack by Keith Fitzhugh. On third down Elliot lobbed to Williams on the right sideline. Covering corner Johnson mis-timed his jump, letting the ball get over to Williams for a catch-and-run down to the Bulldog eight-yard line. Safety Derek Pegues saved the touchdown with a terrific chase and tackle, but he only delayed it as fullback Jeremy McKinney slipped unnoticed into the right flat for the easy toss and tying touchdown at 2:33.
A nice response, including a 3rd-and-15 conversion of 27 yards from Henig to Jason Husband, fell short—or was wide-left as Adam Carlson missed a 42-yard field goal try. The kicker got another chance in the same quarter as Henig found Brandon McRae on a crossing route for 33 yards to the Tulane eight. Two shots into the end zone to Co-Eric Riley were not good, though the second had to be overruled on review to prove the wideout was juggling the ball going out of bounds. Carlson was good on a 23-yard chip at 6:25.
Which Tulane answered three minutes later. A 42-yard completion to Brian King had the Wave at State's 11-yard line. The defense made them settle for the tying three points, and while Carlson had another kick at the lead it was from 51 yards on the last play of the half and well short.
The Bulldogs didn't need any halftime adjusting; they just needed to make that expected statement out of the locker room, and did with a flawless drive of 67 yards in the nine snaps. Henig made quick throws at first, for four and seven yards, then Smith turned a short square-out into a 29-yard dash down the left sideline. Riley made nine yards on a short catch and Dixon kept his balance long enough to move the chains and ball to the Tulane 14-yard line.
On 3rd-and-4 Jones was all the company Henig had in the backfield…and his hot target with a dump-off after the rush was sucked in. The fullback rumbled through two defenders and scored standing up at 11:30.
"It was very big to see our offense pound the ball and do what they wanted to," said O'Neal, whose defense got the ball back in under two minutes. State didn't move the chains, passing up a chance to go for it on 4th-and-inches at the 49-yard line to boos from maroon fans. But Tulane had to punt it away, and even when Arnil Stallworth lost the ball defensive end Jimmie Holmes got it right back by stripping Forte at the Wave 27-yard line.
"The defense went out and picked up the tempo and kept them off the board," said Croom. It was also the perfect time for Dixon to break his first big run, busting through left guard behind a great sealing block from Craig Jenkins for a 27-yard touchdown run and 31-17 lead at 5:45.
It was still 31-17 with Tulane punting from their four-yard line in the final period. Mississippi State got the ball back on the Wave 38 and Dixon took care of 11, 11, five, and the final seven yards of that for the final score at 9:33. "I could tell they were getting tired, a couple of them started cramping up," Dixon said. "I knew they were going to get tired of hitting me eventually."
On State's last possession it was backup Justin Williams hitting Wave tacklers on nine carries and Christian Ducre the final two, against the team he redshirted with in 2005. Croom had set a goal of 50 rushes; officially Dogs ran the ball 54 times, though a couple of those were sacks and others quarterback keepers. It was still good for 266 yards, 60 by Williams and 46 for Ducre.
Fitzhugh had State's only sack, one of his five tackles to match Glanton. Middle linebacker Jamar Chaney was team-high with six stops and Tulane netted just 44 ground yards. Croom's only complaint was the eight penalties assessed State. "But some of them were penalties of aggression. I can live with those."
Freshman Wes Carroll quarterbacked State's last drive. Junior Josh Riddell, expected to play after a one-game suspension, did not get on the field this time. Croom said that while Riddell began the week at number-two, during drills Carroll caught up. "The competition for who is in the number-two spot is still open and the only way we're going to make that determination is how they practice. Next week it might be Josh the second guy." But everybody knows who is #1. "Mike came through and did some nice things tonight," Croom said.
So did lots of Dogs on their evening in the Superdome. "The key to the game was get ‘em and get ‘em early," Brown said. "We showed a lot of poise and came out with a victory."