STARKVILLE — As usual, Mississippi State won a football game with a grinding offense that slowly wore its opponent down. It was just a new face doing the majority of the damage.
Freshman LaDarius Perkins, filling in for injured starter Vick Ballard, rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown as No. 24 Mississippi State survived an upset scare to beat Alabama-Birmingham 29-24 on Saturday night.
Playing as a nationally ranked team for the first time since 2001, the Bulldogs won their fifth straight game, which is the program’s longest streak since 1999. They also earned bowl eligibility for the first time in three seasons and only the second time in a decade.
But it wasn’t easy.
“We just earned ourselves one more game, but there’s a lot more things that this team wants to accomplish,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “I thought we came out flat as a team tonight and we’re definitely going to have an opportunity to address that in practice this week.”
For the second time this season, UAB (2-5) made a Southeastern Conference opponent sweat. The Blazers took a 24-23 lead with 10:16 left in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run by quarterback Bryan Ellis, who plowed through the right side of the line for the touchdown.
But Mississippi State (6-2) responded with two field goals from Derek DePasquale — his fourth and fifth of the night — to help the Bulldogs regain the lead. With slightly less than two minutes remaining, UAB had a chance to drive for the winning touchdown, but Pat Shed fumbled after a 31-yard kickoff return and the Bulldogs were able to run out the clock.
UAB nearly beat Tennessee earlier this season before falling 32-29 in double overtime.
In its long-awaited return to the national rankings, Mississippi State was shaky, especially in the first half. UAB outgained the Bulldogs 207 yards to 103 and tied the game at 10 just before halftime, drawing a smattering of boos from the 56,423 fans in attendance Davis Wade Stadium.
The Bulldogs appeared to take control early in the third quarter, driving for a 17-10 lead on Perkins’ 2-yard touchdown run. But the Blazers showed their resiliency again, answering with Daniel Borne’s 2-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 17.
Mississippi State was giving up just 16 points per game coming into Saturday’s game, which ranked third in the SEC, but struggled to contain the Blazers. Ellis completed 23 of 45 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. Shed rushed for 69 yards.
“I think tonight our team learned a lot about dealing with expectations,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.
But the Bulldogs eventually wore UAB down, staying true to its run-first form with 271 rushing yards. And they didn’t even need Ballard, a bruising 215-pound back who was tied for the league lead with 12 touchdowns, but was hobbled by a sprained ankle.
Perkins, who thrived under the heavier workload, broke free for a 51-yard run late in the fourth quarter during the Bulldogs’ final field goal drive.
“All around everybody did their job tonight,” Perkins said. “My job was to run the football so I did my best to gain yards. The offensive line did their job and blocked so we were able to put up points and win.”
MSU quarterback Chris Relf completed 8 of 19 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries.
Read more about this game in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.
David Brandt/The Associated Press