By Brad Locke / NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A stomach virus ran through Mississippi State’s team earlier in the week, and that might have been Michigan’s only hope.
A handful of Bulldogs starters were still suffering symptoms and battling dehydration when the Gator Bowl kicked off at EverBank Field on Saturday, but there were no ill effects.
And Michigan had no remedy for MSU’s offense or defense as the No. 21-ranked Bulldogs rolled to a 52-14 win in front of an announced crowd of 68,325.
It put a topper on a stellar second season by coach Dan Mullen. At 9-4, MSU has its most wins since the 1999 season, when it went 10-2. And it was the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl win since 1941.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of games, and this is easily as big as any of them because to our kids it’s such an accomplishment,” Mullen said. “I told them it’s a good thing in your life to be credited as an overachiever. That means as an individual you achieve more than anybody thought was possible.”
MSU broke the Gator Bowl scoring record, and Relf had a career game, especially considering the circumstances. Wearing the No. 36 of fallen teammate Nick Bell, the junior completed 18 of 23 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns, and he added 30 yards and a score on the ground.
“Relf was on the money all day today,” tailback LaDarius Perkins said. “He was making plays with his feet and making plays with his arm, too. He was reading the coverages well and stuff like that.”
Relf’s performance earned him the game’s MVP award, but the defense deserved just as much credit. Michigan (7-6), led by dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, got off to a fast start but was soon stymied by an MSU defense that knew what was coming in the run game and forced Robinson to try and win the game with his arm.
Robinson was 27 of 41 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He rushed a season-low 59 yards while the Wolverines had only 88 total rushing yards.
“I knew watching film, they were real predictable what they were doing,” said linebacker K.J. Wright, “so I just looked at the formation of what they were doing, and before the ball was snapped, me and Chris (White), we knew what they were going to do before they snapped the ball.”
White, a middle linebacker, was one of the players who missed Friday’s walk-through practice and had to get fluids via an IV prior to kickoff. White had five tackles, and safety Charles Mitchell led the Bulldogs with 10.
“I thought Chris was fine,” Wright said. “I didn’t even know he was sick until I saw him getting an IV.”
State started to figure things out after Robinson hit Martavious Odoms for a 27-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds left in the first quarter, giving the Wolverines a 14-10 lead.
MSU responded with a 10-play, 77-yard drive highlighted by Vick Ballard’s fourth-down conversion run and 2-yard TD run.
It was the first of Ballard’s three touchdowns, and he finished the season with 19 rushing scores, breaking the 58-year-old school record of 16 held by Jackie Parker.
That made it 17-14 MSU, and it just kept hacking away at Michigan’s defense, which ranked among the worst in the country.
Cornerback Johnthan Banks, who Robinson had picked on repeatedly in the first quarter, made a leaping interception on third down, and MSU capitalized with Relf’s 1-yard TD run with 6:35 left in the half.
A turnover on downs by Michigan at MSU’s 32 preceded Relf’s 15-yard TD toss to Ricco Sanders, and the Bulldogs held a commanding 31-14 halftime lead.
Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons missed a 35-yard field goal early in the third quarter – Michigan’s made just 4 of 14 field goals this season. MSU turned that into a touchdown, with a 14-play, 80-yard drive finished off by Ballard from a yard out.
The rout was on.
Michigan was 2 of 10 on third downs and 0 of 5 on fourth downs.
“You know, there was a couple times we got them on third down where we were going back and forth and playing a little bit of chess match on third down,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “On first-and-10, we were not trying to confuse them. First-and-10 it was roll up your sleeves and play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on normal down. … Third down is recess.”
MSU was 9 of 17 on third-down conversions and converted all five of its fourth-down attempts. It out-gained Michigan in total yardage, 485-342.
This marked the worst bowl loss in Michigan history – the Wolverines are now 19-21 in bowl games all-time – and it might be the final straw for third-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, whose job has appeared in jeopardy for several weeks now.
“They tackled better than us, they caught better than us, they ran better than us, and that’s unfortunate,” Rodriguez said.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571