Bulldogs Outlast Raiders For 31-22 Home Win

Middle Tennessee State won the coin toss and deferred, giving the Bulldogs first turn with the ball. The Raiders shortly regretted the choice because by 11:25 Mississippi State was on the scoreboard after driving 80 yards in just eight snaps. The first, a square-out throw behind the line that FB Arnil Stallworth turned into an instant 28-yard gainer.

Needing five yards on third down across midfield, QB Tyson Lee made a sharp throw and WR Brandon McRae an even better catch over the middle for 22 yards and first down at the Raider 25. Lee play-faked a handoff and kept around left end for ten yards, then after a scramble was hit out of bounds for first-and-goal on the four-yard line. HB Anthony Dixon got it all, picking his way through right guard, for the 7-0 lead and his 27th rushing touchdown to tie the career record. It would fall soon enough.

In the meantime a short State kickoff and return had Middle Tennessee starting on their 36-yard line. The Bulldog defense inadvertently provided the biggest plays in a Raider scoring drive; DE Sean Ferguson hit quarterback Joe Craddock well after the throw for 15 yards, then S Keith Fitzhugh was caught holding at the 10-yard line on a throw that should have been completed in the end zone anyway. Fortunately for State it was dropped and the Raiders had to settle for getting to MSU's 13-yard line before with Alan Gendreau kicking the field goal at 8:03.

An offsides call forced MTSU to re-kick off and Derek Pegues was able to return this one, to the 30-yard line. With 3rd-and-2, the Bulldogs put three wide receivers out to the far right…but handed off to Dixon on a counter-left. He found a crack at left guard for the first down but kept chugging, shedding arm tackles, and suddenly broke into the clear with no Raider support between him and the goal line. His 62-yard touchdown at 6:13 gave him the career rushing touchdown record, and more to the immediate point his team a 14-3 lead.

Another very short kickoff let the Raiders start on their 39-yard line. This time Craddock was harassed into consecutive incompletions and a punt. The Bulldogs mostly stopped themselves this time with a delay penalty, and a mis-run reverse that had WR Jameyel Smith tripped up for loss of ten yards. State punted it back 41 yards.

The Raiders changed triggermen with Dwight Dasher at quarterback. It was a good move because on 3rd-and-5 he found Chris McClover down the left sideline for a 25-yard gainer. Tailback Phillip Tanner broke a tackle and ran for 20 yard down to the Bulldog seven. Dasher kept twice, with Middle Tennessee facing 3rd-and-goal from the five as the quarter changed.

Dasher looked to throw, then pulled down the ball and was smacked short, at the one-yard line, by LB K.J. Wright and Ferguson. The Raiders opted for surer points with Gendreau knocking the short field goal through at 14:16.

The Bulldogs did nothing with their next two turns, letting Blake McAdams punts of 41 and 43 yards keep the defense in good positions. This all changed though when on a first down Craddock, back to quarterback, unloaded long down the right sideline and S De'Mon Glaton, looking up at the wrong time, lost coverage on King. Safety Pegues kept it to a 55-yard play and saved the touchdown by dragging King down at the 15-yard line. Rather, he delayed the scoring. Because on 3rd-and-8 King came from the right-slot, angled right inside Glanton and pulled down the end-zone catch for a 14-13 scoreboard at 6:29.

Completions to McRae for nine and 12 yards moved the chains twice before State, with 4th-and-2 at their 48-yard line, punted. Pinned at their 13-yard line MTSU took no chances, and the Bulldogs used the remaining two timeouts that had the Raiders punting with 1:38 left in the half. David Defatta rushed his kick that angled a yard inside midfield. Lee couldn't find any open targets on three tries, though, and State kicked it back at 1:03. Middle Tennessee was content with a 14-13 halftime difference.

They also had opening possession for the third period, starting at their 27 after a much better Adam Carlson kickoff. Poor tackling let King pinball for 10 yards on third down, and on another third down Honeycutt was left wide-open for 17 yards. Craddock snuck for three yards to move the chains down to State's 11-yard line. A delay penalty on third down was good for State because Craddock might have scrambled all the way in from a closer spot. As it was the Raiders kicked the 23-yard field goal at 9:55 for the 16-14 lead.

Pegues was an ankle-trip from breaking the kickoff, falling at the 31-yard line. His return did put the MSU senior past Kentucky's Derek Abney (2,315) for the SEC record in kickoff return yards, though, with 2,321. There was plenty time to look up the note during one of several clock-problem delays. Play resumed with Dixon grinding out one first down, and WR Delmon Robinson turning a crossing-route catch into 14 yards, to Middle Tennessee's 42-yard line.

A shaky spot of Dixon's third down run was inches short, but the halfback bounced off left end to convert on 4th-and-short at 6:20. Lee flipped to Stallworth for a one-man screen that netted 21 yards, for first and goal at the Raider seven. After Dixon got two hard yards, Lee faked the handoff to his halfback and kept it through left tackle for the go-ahead touchdown at 4:30. Carlson's PAT made it 21-16.

DT Jessie Bowman got a hand on Craddock's 3rd-and-5 throw, with the target open, to force a Raider punt. The line-drive bounced right to Pegues, who used the running start for a 20-yard return but paid the price with a wicked tag-team tackle at MTSU's 48-yard line. Lee hooked up with WR Co-Eric Riley for 11 yards and Dixon converted on 3rd-and-inches with a 13-yard sweep of right end to the 26-yard line. FB Eric Hoskins only needed hang on to the short throw to move the marker; instead Carlson had to try for three from 37 yards out. He was good at 0:22 for a 24-16 MSU advantage.

And the Bulldogs didn't stand pat on that lead. Craddock was hurried by LB Dominic Douglas into a miss on third down and State got the ball back at the 39-yard line. Lee hit Stallworth for 11 yards to start a really decisive drive, with the critical play on 3rd-and-8 at MTSU's 38-yard line. Smith slipped free on the far sideline and Lee's footwork bought enough time to find the wideout for a 24-yard gain. From there it was all Dixon with blasts of five, five, three, and the final yard—around left tackle with a Raider linebacker trying to strip the ball instead of tackling the runner. Dixon's third touchdown made it 31-16 with 9:45 still on the clock.

The extra margin was crucial because Middle Tennessee wasn't done. Wideout King made 15 yards on a catch-and-run, but the Raiders had 4th-and-short on the Bulldog 49. Tanner was stopped once, then twice, but the Sun Belt league crew didn't blow the whistle until the back fell somewhere near the mark. And a generous spot gave the first down. Craddock completed three-straight tosses for 34 more yards, then on 3rd-and-goal Tanner squirmed over.

The drive had taken almost seven minutes, though, and MTSU opted to try for two points right now when a PAT would have made it a more reasonable eight-point difference. Craddock rolled right, with a trio of Dogs in pursuit and forcing him to overthrow his target at the goal line. Thus all State had to do was recover the on-sides kick and use up some time; then if the Raiders scored it wouldn't matter.

The ‘hands' team didn't exactly do the job as a Raider got to the sideline kick first, but only after illegal contact before the necessary ten yards. Nor did State make a first down; fortunately the Raiders had to use their last two timeouts in the process, so when McAdams got off a punt into the end zone there were 95 seconds left and an impossible one-possession margin to make up. A first-down was meaningless and the game ended on an incomplete pass.

Dixon finished with 126 yards on 27 carries for his career-best three touchdowns, giving him 29 such scores for the program record. He also surpassed Michael Davis' career mark of 578 carries, with 596 now in three seasons. And, Dixon now ranks 6th in career rushing with 2,334 yards, having moved up three whole slots in just one evening.

Lee was 17-of-25 passing for 197 yards, and if he did not throw a touchdown neither were any of his passes picked. Also, Lee did not absorb a single sacking. Stallworth and Bell had four catches each, for 60 and 29 yards.

Tanner topped the Raider rushers but with just 29 yards. Craddock was 23-of-40 for 235 yards and a touchdown, also with no interceptions. In fact neither team committed a turnover or for that matter fumbled the ball. King caught 11 of the MTSU 25 receptions, for 164 yards.

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