A crowd of 42,272 watched State match their highest win total of the decade and reach the halfway point to bowl eligibility. Meanwhile the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb, a Division IAA program, left 1-2 after their first-ever contest with a Southeastern Conference squad. The host Bulldogs put up four touchdowns, three produced on offense, before halftime and routined their way through the second half while Gardner-Webb scored some well-earned pride points.
While Croom wasn't actually playing for a blowout, he was somewhat disappointed that his Dogs didn't keep better control of things after intermission. "We wanted to have killer instinct, put the game away and hopefully get some more people in and play. We didn't quite get that done because of penalties." Though, he noted, the team on the other side had something to say about the final margin also. "I thought they played hard the second half when it looked like they didn't have a lot to play for, and they have some kids that look like pretty good football players."
Given the nature of the matchup, as well as the situation State had been in all week, there were only two players Bulldog backers cared about. This non-conference contest served a double-duty as a referendum on who is the top Dog at quarterback. The verdict: neither Wesley Carroll nor Josh Riddell has seized that status yet.
"I thought they both did some good things," said Croom, correctly. Freshman Carroll got the start and directed the game-opening touchdown drive in four series before Riddell subbed-in and led the offense to points on three possessions for a 31-3 margin that was more than sufficient. Carroll got to finish out the evening, signally as clearly as anything that the job remains very much up for grabs.
Statistically though Riddell came out best, hitting 8-of-11 throws for 124 yards and a sweet 30-yard touchdown strike just before the halftime break. "I thought I did alright. When I went in I got a lot of time to throw the ball, the line blocked real good and the receivers got open. It made my job a lot easier."
Meanwhile true frosh Carroll, who directed the winning touchdown drive at Auburn, was 4-of-8 for 42 yards and nothing longer than 18 yards off his hand…though he did have a 27-yard run off an option-read. He, too, credited the blocking, catching, and running for easing his first college start, a designation he wasn't absolutely sure was his until on the field. "Actually I was never really told. Like Coach said, it was a game-time decision. I wasn't afraid or nervous to go in."
The two triggermen combined for 166 yards with one score and one interception, thrown by Riddell. Neither took a sack. State also manufactured 213 rushing yards, 86 of it from HB Anthony Dixon on 16 carries as he scored a pair of touchdowns. The soph could quite easily have gotten his third 100-yard outing in a row, had he gotten more than just one second-half touch of the ball before retiring for the evening. "I'd have cut my throat if that guy had got hurt," Croom said. Alternate HB Christian Ducre added 51 yards on 10 rushes.
Gardner-Webb finished with 131 yards, 42 by pint-sized back David Montgomery on 10 tries. Their best weapon was quarterback Stan Doolittle, who didn't start but was quickly subbed-in to throw for 191 yards on 19-of-33 passing. He replaced Devin Campbell after the starter had thrown a touchdown, for Mississippi State that is.
If Carroll was antsy at all about getting the start it didn't show. Told to throw on his first starting-snap as a collegian he hooked up with WR Aubrey Bell for a gain of eleven yards. "I was glad about that, it just loosened me up early instead of when am I going to pass?" It was the start of a 68-yard drive ending on Dixon's nine-yard bounce around right end, shedding a couple of tackler en route for the touchdown at 10:02.
"The top priority of this game was to go out there the first offensive drive and put a touchdown on the board," Carroll said. "Not a field goal." And every one of the ten snaps produced a net-gain, including Carroll's second snap; a keeper through left guard for 27 yards. "It was an option, we'd been working on that all week and executing real well," Carroll said. Even mistakes, like a downfield hold, still worked out eight yards to the positive.
It was the first time this season the offense scored State's first touchdown of a win. Their defensive cohorts didn't take long to respond though. After G-W moved the chains by working the left side of the field, they faced 3rd-and-4 and quarterback Campbell tried to go the other way throwing for Dobson Collins at State's 40-yard line. But two defensive backs were there bracketing the wideout, and S De'Mon Glanton had dibs. "I just broke on it first, I was looking at the quarterback and he eyeing him down the whole time. Wasn't nothing in front of me but green." Sixty yards later he crossed the goal at 7:55 for a 14-0 lead. It was the third-straight game the Dog defense had tallied a pick-for-six.
A change of quarterbacks helped the Running' Dogs as Doolittle threw for one first down and Montgomery scampered for another on State's side of midfield. G-W still ended up punting but Dixon fumbled on first down and the visitors were in business on the host's 15-yard line. On third down a throw for Duvaughn Flager in the end zone drew an interference flag off new starting CB Tay Bowser; and a snap later he interfered again with Petty.
Given first-down at the two, the Running' Dogs couldn't cash in. LB Jamon Hughes stuffed Phillip Peoples for nothing, a quick-snap keeper on second was worth the same, and on third down Doolittle's sneak netted ditto to end the first quarter. On the first play of the second the quarterback rolled right; nobody was open and the throw high anyway. "It was a big statement," O'Neal said. "We just let them know we were here to play."
"I thought it was real important, any time they use all four downs," Croom said. "It takes a little of their momentum away and the confidence shifts to your side." It certainly looked that way as Dixon immediately got the offense away from their own goal line with a 23-yard burst through right guard, and State made their own 49-yard line before punting.
The defense got the ball back soon enough, after Doolittle had scrambled for a G-Webb first down. His swing-out to Brandon Jackson was not only covered by Demario Bobo, the safety was able to strip the ball and recover at the 24-yard line. But a 27-yard field goal try never had a chance as punter Blake McAdams bobbled the hold.
State's Derek Pegues nearly gave the guests a gift by dropping a punt at 5:40. Fortunately Keon Humphries was there for the recovery on the 42-yard line. Riddell got his turn now, and on 4th-and-1 at the Webb 35 he bootlegged the right end for four yards and a fresh set of downs. Bell got his defender to over-run him for a completion at the 12-yard line, and Dixon went around left end and by stretching full-length stuck the ball over the pylon for touchdown at 2:42.
A hold on the kickoff had Webb starting on their 19-yard line, and Doolittle did well to fall on his errant option pitch to keep State from taking over in the red zone. The Bulldogs used timeouts so that when G-W punted, and Pegues returned the kick 23 yards to the Webb 30, there were 85 seconds to work with.
Riddell and WR Tony Burks needed just seven of those. "We were going in two-minute offense there," Riddell said. "We had a streak called on the left side with a cross on the back side, I read it and their safety collapsed on the tight end and Tony was wide-open. He did the rest." As in waiting for the strike to arrive safely at 1:18 for the halftime lead of 28-0.
Gardner-Webb had first turn of the last half and made three points out of it, driving ten plays for Taylor Ports to hit a 33-yard kick at 10:43 and spoil the shutout. The Bulldogs got those three points back, though. Riddell slipped a throw over a leaping cornerback to Jamayel Smith for 25 fast yards, hit Burks on a slant pattern for 20 more, and dumped off to Dixon for a 15-yard gainer down to the 16-yard line.
A hold negated Ducre's bid to move the chains again, and ultimately meant settling for another field goal attempt. This time all worked as practiced and Carlson was good from 33 yards at 7:19 for a 31-3 score.
Their score had put some zip back in Webb's offense though, and with Doolittle hitting a third-and-long strike to Flagler for 36 yards and Miller for 13 more the Runnin' Dogs had passed their way down to State's eight-yard line. Two incompletions and a short hook-up with Flager left them three long yards short of the goal, so Webb took the easy three points on a 20-yard kick at 4:34.
Their next series went from the Webb 20 back into State's red zone again, with bursts of 26 yards by Montgomery and 14 more by Peoples getting to the six-yard line before the Dog defense called for time. That just delayed the Runnin' Bulldogs' running touchdown on a six-yard squirm by Peoples at 12:21, though the two-point try failed. The visitors were able to add one more Kay field goal at 6:10 for the final margin, after a 75-yard drive featuring a 43-yard strike to Collins down the right sideline.
Croom had hoped to be able to give more players time on the field. He had to settle for leaving starters or at least top alternates in longer than planned. "The score was about what I hoped to be at halftime, but I was disappointed with the penalties that kept us from finishing it off the first five-ten minutes of the third quarter which I though we would," he said. "Had we gone up 35 at that point, we'd planned to put our second unit in. But to their credit they kept battling back and we made far too many penalties."
It was the mistakes more than the lesser margin of victory that bothered the coach and team both afterwards. Yet, with a third-straight win in the books all could keep things in a pleasant perspective. "We're happy," Riddell said. "But we need to keep this streak going."
A streak that goes on the line next Saturday when State is back on the road and back in SEC action, taking on South Carolina. And winning streak or not, the Bulldogs were already looking ahead to their league matchup, to fixing those penalties, to improving some lax tackling…oh, and to the continuing competition for who will be running the offense. But it's a good sort of competition, both candidates insist, good for them and the entire team.
"The momentum is up, everybody is high on each other," said Riddell. "It'll definitely be easier."