By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
MEMPHIS – As Vick Ballard raced toward the end zone, a faster Memphis defender caught up to him around the 10-yard line. But he was shooed away with a stiff arm, and it became clear whose night this would be.
It was Ballard’s night, and it was No. 20 Mississippi State’s night, as the tailback reacquainted himself with that old friend, the end zone, in a 59-14 romp on Thursday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Ballard’s tone-setter was a 46-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he wound up recording the fifth three-TD night of his career. He was just one of many contributors on a night when MSU set a single-game school record for total offense: 645 yards.
The previous mark of 596 yards was set in 1978 against Florida State.
MSU gained 336 yards through the air and 309 on the ground. Quarterback Chris Relf was 13 of 21 for 202 yards and two TDs.
MSU also scored 50-plus points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1914. Back on Jan. 1, the Bulldogs walloped Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl.
Third-year coach Dan Mullen didn’t get too caught up in all the numbers, saying there were “a lot of teaching moments.”
He added, “I’m happy we’re balanced. There were a lot of big plays, and that’s great. But we were 4 of 12 on third down. We want to be a little cleaner.”
Ballard finished with a career-high 166 yards on 10 carries and had TD runs of 46, 66 and 1 yard.
“He’s a tough, physical football player,” Mullen said, “one who can make things happen. He’s one of the cogs on our offense. It’s good he only had to carry 10 times tonight.”
MSU, entering the season ranked for the first time since 2001, was back in this old stadium for the first time since the 2007 Liberty Bowl, when it defeated UCF. And it came in missing five players, who were suspended by Mullen for various violations of team policies.
That didn’t matter, as State beat Memphis for the 12th consecutive time. The Tigers were 1-11 last season and clearly have a lot of work ahead to become improved under second-year coach Larry Porter.
Memphis gained 338 total yards, with backup quarterback Taylor Reed, a freshman, completing 23 of 35 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted by safety Nickoe Whitley in the fourth quarter.
MSU’s first touchdown of the season was as easy as they come. Using the hurry-up mode it worked on during preseason camp, State scored in a matter of 26 seconds on two players, the latter a 44-yard Relf strike to a wide open Bumphis between the hashes.
MSU led 7-0 at the 11:23 mark of the first quarter.
The next score was big play, too, when Ballard ripped off a 46-yard run down the left sideline for his 20th career rushing touchdown. Derek DePasquale later hit a 28-yard field goal to give State a 17-0 lead after one quarter.
Memphis was sloppy early on offense, with penalties and a leaky offensive line making life rough for first-time starting quarterback Andy Summerlin. The Tigers saw some good things from their running backs but couldn’t string anything together.
It got worse, as starting tailback Jerrell Rhodes was injured after taking a hard hit from Corey Broomfield in the second quarter. Reed was at QB by that point.
Memphis didn’t cross midfield until under seven minutes left in the second quarter, and that drive ended in a turnover on downs at MSU’s 33.
But thanks to a fake botched punt moments later, Memphis was in business at the 30, and Billy Foster ran in from 21 yards to cut MSU’s lead to 24-7 with 3:19 left in the half.
MSU answered quickly, covering 98 yards in five plays, with Ballard galloping 66 yards for his second TD. The senior had 164 rushing yards by halftime, and MSU had 405 yards of total offense at that point.
State’s first seven touchdown drives took a total of 6:57 off the clock. The final one, directed by backup QB Tyler Russell, lasted 5:47 and was capped by Russell’s 26-yard scoring run.
Redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis led MSU’s receivers with 113 yards on four catches, and he scored on an 80-yard catch and 19-yard run.