By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
MSU’s offense had what right guard Tobias Smith termed “a coming-out party,” piling up 450 yards with a very balanced attack – 41 runs, 39 passes.
QB Tyler Russell was as sharp as he’s ever been, and he led the Bulldogs to a late, game-clinching 75-yard TD drive.
MSU was penalized only twice. Defensively, the Bulldogs held prolific Tennessee QB Tyler Bray mostly in check, limiting him to 148 passing yards.
Tennessee rushed for 213 yards, and that was with starting tailback Rajion Neal missing a good chunk of action with an injury. The Volunteers ran nine times on a 15-play scoring drive that cut State’s lead to 27-24 in the third quarter.
MSU hit a lull on offense that began late in the second quarter and carried into the fourth.
Keys to victory
Evaluating the keys to victory in Saturday’s GameDay section:
1. Mind the run game. MSU got gashed early and often by Tennessee’s bevy of running backs. Four different players rushed for at least 30 yards, led by Devrin Young’s 58 on 13 carries, and the Vols averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
A lot of those yards came after contact.
2. Hit the big play. MSU’s first four plays of the game covered 10 or more yards, and it finished the game with seven plays of 20 yards or more, six of those passes by Russell.
The longest play was only 29 yards, which was a small victory for Tennessee, which entering the game had given up 15 plays of 30-plus yards.
3. Close it out. MSU got the ball with 5:22 left, leading 34-31, and covered 75 yards in 12 plays. It had a big third-down conversion along the way, and Russell hit Malcolm Johnson for a 9-yard TD on fourth-and-goal with 9 seconds left.
QB Tyler Russell: He was 23 of 37 for a career-high 291 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He made good reads, good decisions, and clutch throws all night. On the season, the junior has passed for 1,382 yards, 12 TDs and one interception.
This was a validation game for MSU, and the offense showed more than it had all season. But several tests remain, starting this weekend with a Middle Tennessee State team that beat Georgia Tech earlier this season.