By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State had another one of its offensive lulls Saturday night, but its defense helped it find life after halftime.
The No. 15 Bulldogs (7-0) scored three touchdowns in the third quarter to pull away from Middle Tennessee State in a 45-3 homecoming win before a crowd of 55,108 at Davis Wade Stadium. It was MSU’s final non-SEC game of the season.
And as has happened in other games, State’s offense hit a dry spell, leading only 10-3 at halftime. But the defense forced a punt in its own territory and set up two scores with turnovers in the third quarter.
Tailback LaDarius Perkins gave MSU the jolt it needed when he ripped off a career-long 64-yard touchdown run, his eighth of the season. That made it 17-3 with 7 minutes, 30 seconds left in the third.
Then MSU cornerback Johnthan Banks intercepted Logan Kilgore and returned it to MTSU’s 25-yard line. He went down with a twisted knee at the end of the play but walked off under his own power.
“Once Perk broke it, Banks got the interception, got back up, our guys seemed to be, you know what, let’s stop worrying, let’s relax, let’s go play and go execute,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “And we started making a ton of plays from that point on.”
The Banks interception set up Tyler Russell’s 11-yard TD pass to Chris Smith, the second time those two hooked up.
On the next series, Cam Lawrence forced and recovered a Kilgore fumble, and one play later Russell hit Robert Johnson for a 23-yard score. It was 31-3 with still 2:06 left in the third.
MSU, which now has a turnover margin of plus-17, was down 1-0 in that department after one half of play.
Middle Tennessee (4-3) had won its first three road games of the season, including a 49-28 win at Georgia Tech. It started to find an offensive groove in the second quarter but couldn’t finish its drives.
“We were just out-manned at times,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said.
Russell had an efficient night, completing 17 of 21 passes for 191 yards and three TDs. He was a big reason for MSU’s success on third downs – it converted its first five and finished 9 of 12.
“They did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” Russell said of MTSU’s defense. “We watched film over and over, and a couple of times on third down conversions I kind of expected and anticipated what they were going to do, and they did it.”
Perkins finished with 125 yards on 20 carries, and he ran it nine times for 36 yards on MSU’s opening possession. It was State’s longest scoring drive of the season, both in terms of plays (14) and time (7:08). It covered 75 yards and culminated with Russell’s 4-yard strike to Smith.
Perkins has gone over 100 yards in four of his last five games.
“I got the ball a good bit the first drive, and we just kept pounding, pounding away,” Perkins said. “When you pound like that, eventually you’re going to break one, and that’s what happened. I was expecting it anyway.”
After their first TD, the Bulldogs couldn’t keep up that pace the rest of the half, settling for a pair of field goal tries, one of which Devon Bell missed. Then Russell fumbled at MTSU’s 42-yard line with 1:20 to go in the half, giving the visitors a big break.
But Middle Tennessee squandered it, running only three plays – two runs – and leaving three timeouts on the board.