STARKVILLE – Mississippi State found its knockout punch Saturday night.
In front of 57,831 raucous fans, the No. 19 Bulldogs built an early lead and not only held on, but finished off Tennessee in a 41-31 win at Davis Wade Stadium.
The win made MSU (6-0, 3-0 SEC) bowl eligible and was its most impressive performance of the season. And players hope it earns them more respect after playing a rather soft schedule the first five games.
“I hope the other media people – I don’t know if y’all said it – but I hope they don’t say we still ain’t played nobody,” said cornerback Johnthan Banks, who had a big fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “Hopefully we’ll get the respect we deserve. Because our team is for real, too.”
The Bulldogs were clinging to a 34-31 lead with 5 minutes, 22 seconds left and drove 75 yards to clinch victory. On a fourth-and-goal from Tennessee’s 9-yard line, Tyler Russell lobbed a pass to tight end Malcolm Johnson, who got one foot down in the back of the end zone with 9 seconds left.
It was Johnson’s first game back after missing the first five with a pectoral injury. He had two catches for 34 yards on the night.
“Coach said if it’s open, throw it, and if it’s not, don’t force it,” Russell said. “Right there I gave him a chance – either he was going to catch it or nobody was going to catch it.”
In previous wins, MSU hadn’t always finished teams off as early as they’d have liked. With Tennessee’s offensive firepower, the Bulldogs knew putting this one away wouldn’t be easy.
But they did it, and the postgame celebration was, well...
“Our locker room was ridiculous,” Banks said. “Y’all can only imagine how our locker room was. This is the biggest win probably since I’ve been here.”
Russell’s career night
Russell passed for a career-high 291 yards, completing 23 of 37 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Chad Bumphis had seven catches for 93 yards, and while he didn’t score, he had a huge third-down catch on MSU’s final drive, then caught a 23-yarder down to UT’s 23.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3) had the ball down by three points when Banks, a senior, stripped Devrin Young of the ball and recovered it at the UT 30-yard line. Three plays later, LaDarius Perkins punched it in from 1 yard out with 7:58 left, making it a 34-24 MSU lead.
Banks said that earlier in the week, coach Dan Mullen posted a picture on Instagram with a picture of Banks and Bumphis, with the line, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Said Banks, “I came up, I made a big play for my team, and I think I helped my team get a win.”
But the Volunteers wasted no time answering, covering 58 yards on five plays, and Bray hit fullback Ben Bartholomew for a 10-yard scoring pass with 5:22 left.
Bray finished with a career-low 13 completions on 24 attempts for 148 yards, two TDs and an interception, and his struggles continued in SEC play. But he got good run support, as Tennessee rushed for 213 yards. MSU out-gained Tennessee in total yardage, 450-361, running 22 more plays (80-58).
MSU was 4 of 14 on third downs and 2 of 2 on fourth downs. It had 26 first downs.
“We didn’t give up a tone of huge plays tonight, so it was a little different storyline,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “We bled to death; just bled to death. We hit stretches where we played pretty good, which is what’s bizarre.”
UT closes gap
Tennessee opened the second half with a field goal and then an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bray to Cordarrelle Patterson, cutting MSU’s lead to 27-24 with 4:07 left in the third quarter. Tennessee ran the ball nine times on the 15-play drive with starting tailback Rajion Neal sidelined by an injury.
Young led UT with 58 yards on 13 carries. For MSU, Perkins had 101 yards and a TD on 23 carries, his third 20-plus carry game of the year.
MSU came firing out of the gates on the game’s first series, reaching Tennessee’s 13-yard line on four plays and a face mask penalty. But the drive stalled there, and Devon Bell hit a 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Tennessee answered with a methodical 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Neal bulled through several would-be tacklers for a 6-yard TD.
MSU’s next drive was nearly done in by a 10-yard sack, but Russell hit Chris Smith for 20 yards on third-and-18, and redshirt freshman Josh Robinson scored his first career TD on a 10-yard run.
State then used a short field to go up 17-7, with backup QB Dak Prescott throwing his first career touchdown pass, 13 yards to Marcus Green early in the second quarter.
But Tennessee struck right back, as Patterson took the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a score.
After a Bell field goal, MSU stayed away from Patterson with a pooch kick that Taveze Calhoun recovered at Tennessee’s 33. That led to a 7-yard TD pass from Russell to Green for a 27-14 lead, and that stood until halftime.
Green, who had only one catch in his previous three games, finished with six catches for 71 yards and two scores.
Senior safety Corey Broomfield had his first interception of the season near the end of the first half.
Russell had 199 yards passing by halftime, spreading the ball to several receivers, including three tight ends. MSU outgained Tennessee 293-97 in the first half and controlled the clock by a 3-1 margin.
Senior right guard Tobias Smith, who’s been limited this season by a fragile knee, started the game but left in the second quarter after someone rolled up on his leg. State had trouble running the ball without him, gaining just 40 yards after he left.
But he returned on the first play of the fourth quarter, with Perkins running off his side for 20 yards to convert a third down. MSU wound up punting, however, and did so on five consecutive possessions before Banks’ big play.
But thanks in part to Russell, State got going again, scoring TDs on its final two possessions.
“Even when we were kind of slipping, even when we weren’t performing on offense, he was calm, collected and made the plays he needed to make,” Mullen said, “especially in that fourth quarter right there at the end.”
No. 19 MISSISSIPPI ST. 41, TENNESSEE 31
Tennessee 7 7 10 7—31
Mississippi St. 10 17 0 14—41
MSSt_FG Bell 31, 12:21.
Tenn_Neal 6 run (Palardy kick), 8:51.
MSSt_J.Robinson 10 run (Bell kick), 3:09.
MSSt_Green 13 pass from Prescott (Bell kick), 14:17.
Tenn_Patterson 98 kickoff return (Palardy kick), 14:02.
MSSt_FG Bell 24, 9:29.
MSSt_Green 7 pass from Russell (Bell kick), 7:46.
Tenn_FG Palardy 38, 10:35.
Tenn_Patterson 11 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 4:07.
MSSt_Perkins 1 run (Bell kick), 7:58.
Tenn_Bartholomew 10 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 5:22.
MSSt_M.Johnson 9 pass from Russell (Bell kick), :09.
First downs 18 26
Rushes-yards 34-213 41-142
Passing 148 308
Comp-Att-Int 13-24-1 25-39-0
Return Yards (-1) 10
Punts-Avg. 5-33.8 5-41.8
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 0-0
Penalties-Yards 6-64 1-10
Time of Possession 23:29 36:31
RUSHING_Tennessee, Young 13-58, Patterson 3-57, Neal 9-40,
Howard 4-30, Watson 2-13, Lane 2-9, Bray 1-6. Mississippi St.,
Perkins 23-101, J.Robinson 6-41, Milton 1-3, Prescott 2-2, Russell 7-0,
Team 1-(minus 2), Griffin 1-(minus 3).
PASSING_Tennessee, Bray 13-24-1-148. Mississippi St.,
Russell 23-37-0-291, Prescott 2-2-0-17.
RECEIVING_Tennessee, Rogers 3-35, Hunter 2-41, Patterson 2-25,
Neal 2-11, Dallas 1-14, Bartholomew 1-10, Rivera 1-7, Howard 1-5.
Mississippi St., Bumphis 7-93, Green 6-71, Clark 3-44, C.Smith 3-31,
M.Johnson 2-34, Perkins 2-25, Hemphill 1-5, Hill 1-5.
Click here for photo gallery from game.
Game highlights below.