Mississippi State Ends Year On High Note, Beating Wake, 23-17 in Music City BowlDecember 31, 2011
NASHVILLE – Pitting a pair of 6-6 teams against one another – each with the goal of avoiding a losing season – one might think the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl game would be mediocre at best.
But Wake Forest and Mississippi State transcended their .500 seasons and put on an entertaining performance for the 55,208 fans at LP Field Friday night, with the tenacious Bulldogs holding on for a 23-17 victory.
Mississippi State’s senior running back Vick Ballard was named the game’s MVP, not at all surprising since he rushed for 180 yards on only 14 carries and scored on a pair of spectacular runs: 60 yards in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-7 and then a nifty 72-yarder early in the fourth to give the Bulldogs a two-possession bulge.
Mississippi State finishes at 7-6, (2-6 SEC) while Wake Forest drops to 6-7 (5-3, ACC).
Although they came out on top on the scoreboard, Mississippi State lost the turnover battle, four to zip, a stat that usually results in a loss, according to the team’s top dog.
“At times it looked like we were trying to find ways to lose. Usually if you’re minus four in turnovers, you’re going to lose that game,” said Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. “But even though we started slow and made a bunch of silly mistakes (two lost fumbles, two interceptions in the first half), no one panicked, everyone stuck to the game plan.
“Given all the mistakes we’d made, I was pretty happy to have a lead at halftime,” Mullen said.
The Bulldogs built a 16-7 halftime lead on a Chris Relf to Arceto Clark 31-yard touchdown pass and a 33-yard field goal by D. DePasquale whose extra point kick on the Clark TD had sailed wide.
Wake Forest had scored first in the game, when senior tailback Brandon Pendergrass broke free for a 14-yard scoring run with 4:24 left in the first quarter.
The Demon Deacons cut the lead to 17-14 when Tommy Bohanon bulled in from the one, capping a 64-yard drive to open the second half.
With 3:27 left in the game, Wake tacked on a 46-yard field goal by Jimmy Newman who had a field goal attempt blocked by Fletcher Cox in the second quarter.
“The blocked field goal was big for them but bottom line is, we didn’t make enough plays on offense, defense or on special teams,” said Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, noting that the extended hiatus since the previous game might have had an adverse effect on special teams play. “I think our kicking game as a whole suffered the most from the long layoff since the end of the regular season."
“A couple plays here and there and the outcome might have been different,” Grobe said. “But probably the best explanation for the loss is that Mississippi State is a pretty good team.”
Not that Wake Forest didn’t give the Bulldogs something to chew on in the closing minutes of the game, as the Demon Deacons had a chance to go ahead on their final drive.
After stopping Mississippi State on downs, Wake got the ball back with a little more than two minutes to play and no timeouts remaining. As it had in the previous series for the Demon Deacons, it once again came down to a fourth-down play. This time, needing seven from their own 32, quarterback Tanner Price’s pass in the flat fell incomplete with 1:41 to play, giving the ball – and essentially the game – to Mississippi State, which promptly ran out the clock as Bulldog fans victoriously chanted “S-E-C, S-E-C!”
“You expect teams to battle right to the end in bowl games and Wake Forest did just that,” said Mullen. “But even though we were a bit sloppy at times, at the end we made the plays we had to make." Some of those big plays came as a result of a relentless pass rush by the Bulldogs.
Price complete 24 of his 46 passing attempts for a total of 214 yards but the key number was six, as in six sacks recorded by Mississippi State.
“We expected them to pressure us, and they gave us a lot of corner pressure tonight and did a good job of mixing up their blitzes,” said Grobe, adding that there was a group of crestfallen players in the Wake Forest locker room. “We were obviously disappointed. I thought our kids played well enough to win but even though we have a group of disappointed seniors right now, I’m really proud of them,” he said.
The 2011 Music City Bowl featured one of the strangest plays one might imagine, although certainly not in the category of the infamous Music City Miracle that allowed Tennessee to improbably defeat Buffalo in an NFL playoff game on Jan. 8, 2000.
In one of the strangest interceptions one might conceive, a pass by Relf was tipped off the outstretched hands of Clark at the Wake 10, tumbling through the air like the Kennedy-Connally magic bullet, before it bounced in and out of the hands of Mississippi State wide receiver Chris Smith at the five and finally settled in the waiting grasp of Wake Forest cornerback Merrill Noel, who was backpedaling toward the end zone on coverage. Noel promptly ran it back to the Wake Forest 19.
After that spectacular play, the remainder of the third quarter was rather mundane, neither team managing to sustain a drive.
But Ballard got the crowd awake when he broke off tackle and sped down the sideline 72 yards to paydirt, leaving a pair of Wake defenders in his wake.
That gave Mississippi State a 23-14 lead with 13 minutes left in the game and cemented Ballard's selection as the 2011 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl’s Most Valuable Player.