By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – Vick Ballard was offered the microphone but declined it. He let his play do the talking Friday night.
The senior rushed for a career-high 180 yards as Mississippi State beat Wake Forest, 23-17, in the Music City Bowl at LP Field. Ballard, who scored on runs of 60 and 72 yards, was named game MVP, and during the trophy ceremony he was given the chance to speak to the heavily partisan crowd.
The quiet-natured Ballard instead opted to revel in the Bulldogs’ second consecutive bowl victory. They won the Gator Bowl last year.
His first TD tied the game at 7-7, and the second one helped MSU (7-6) open up a 23-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the game, Ballard had trouble recalling what went right on those plays.
” I don’t even remember how I got there,” he said.
Ballard’s two big runs were the brightest spots on what was generally a sloppy night for MSU’s offense, which committed four turnovers, including an early – and rare – fumble by Ballard.
“I didn’t let it get to me, I just knew I had to step up and make a play,” said Ballard. “That’s how I always think, so that’s what I did.”
Ballard ended the season with 1,189 rushing yards, the fourth-highest single-season total in school history.
The Bulldogs had 382 total yards, and quarterback Chris Relf was 12 of 19 for 129 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
The defense did its part, making life rough for Wake Forest QB Tanner Price. The sophomore was 24 of 46 for 214 yards and was sacked six times.
Wake (6-7) gained 287 total yards, just 63 of that on the ground.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox blocked a field goal early in the second quarter to set up MSU’s second score. It took just two plays: A 27-yard Relf run, and then a 31-yard TD pass from Relf to Arceto Clark.
“I think I started off bad, but that built my confidence up,” Relf said. “I’m always confident, it was just a matter of me calming down and making the throws.”
Derek DePasquale’s missed point-after kick left it at 13-7 MSU. The senior kicker made up for it later in the second quarter with a 33-yard field goal, and the Bulldogs led 16-7 at halftime.
“As the game wound down toward end of the game, that (blocked) field goal became huge,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “We make that one, we’re in much better shape.”
Wake cut it to 16-14 on the opening drive of the second half, going 64 yards on eight plays. Fullback Tommy Bohanan scored on a 1-yard run.
Relf was intercepted on the next possession by Merrill Noel, the freshman cornerback who was nursing a sprained ankle.
MSU’s defense held thanks in part to a Josh Boyd sack.
Ballard’s TD run to make it 23-14 proved to be enough for MSU’s defense. Wake Forest got a field goal with 3:29 to go and then got it back with 2:15 on the clock.
But the Deacs went four-and-out.
MSU’s sloppy offensive start included a pair of lost fumbles, the second of which Wake Forest turned into a 14-yard TD run by Brandon Pendergrass, making it 7-0 with 4:24 left in the period.
State answered three plays later when Ballard burst through the right side of the line, got a good block from receiver Chris Smith, and sprinted 60 yards for the game-tying score.
“Even though we started slow, we made a bunch of silly mistakes, no one panicked, no one got worried,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “Everybody just stuck to the game plan, did their job, and found a way to come out with the victory.”