Playing their first bowl game under Mullen, in the program’s first post-season action since 2007, the Bulldogs made the most of their opportunity. After allowing Michigan a 14-10 lead after one quarter, they exploded for six more touchdowns and celebrated New Years Day in real Mississippi State style. Mullen’s second MSU team ended the extended year at 9-4, while the Wolverines finished 7-6. It was the first-ever meeting of the schools.
And many Michigan minds hope the last. At least as long as the SEC Bulldogs bring the sort of overwhelming physical approach to these inter-conference matchups. State simply whipped the Wolverines by both ground and air on offense, and defensively humbled an attack that came in averaging 34 points and 501 yards. The 52 points posted were most for a MSU team against a Division I opponent since 1994, as well as a Bulldog bowl record topping the 41 scored back in the 2000 Independence (i.e. Snow) Bowl.
Just going bowling in year-two was something for Mississippi State to celebrate of course. And Mullen did loosen the bowl week leash, a little. But not so much that the players lost sight of the ultimate goal. The coach saw good signs on the first day of the week, in fact. “We’re at a beach party, guys jumping in the ocean. A half-hour later we’re at practice and everybody is totally locked-in on what is going on. They were focused on the reason that we were here, which was to win this football game.”
And the Dogs did. Not without an initial scare though, as behind brilliant playmaker Denard Robinson the Wolverines scored touchdowns on their first and third possessions. But Mullen said there was no player panic or sideline changes in plans.
“We felt we were in position, we just had to make tackles,” he said as Michigan was able to burn downfield coverage or break some first-shot tackles. Once the Dog defense settled down and began putting Robison and others down, everything else fell into place. The Wolverines didn’t get to throw, they had to throw, which was neither the same thing nor as productive.
“We wanted to force them into throwing the football and get them out of their comfort zone,” Mullen said. “We were able to slow them down running the football, we held them to 88 yards which I’m sure is way below their average. And our guys just stuck with the plan, they didn’t get nervous early on.”
Especially as the MSU offense was able to match and then top Michigan score for score, eventually stringing series together and building a lead too large to lose. Quarterback Chris Relf had a superb afternoon, if not his best statistical to-date surely his finest demonstration of development in two seasons with this coaching staff. A staff that gave him encouragement pre-game, in fact.
“I told Chris during warm-ups I have a feeling you’re going to play your best game of the season,” said Mullen. “He did a great job of managing the game. I think you saw the maturing Chris has coming along by managing the game.” Relf managed not only to throw for 281 yards and three touchdowns, he distributed to all sorts of receiver choices doing so.
Relf did not have to run as often as most expected but did net 30 yards and a touchdown that way. More productive was drawing defensive attention so tailbacks Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins could prosper. The result was well-balanced rushing for 204 total yards and four scores. Ballard had three of them, giving him 20 total touchdowns for the season and tying Jackie Parker’s scoring record of 120 points set 58 years ago.
State won the toss and deferred, giving Michigan first turn with the ball. They used it well taking ten plays to score the opening touchdown. Robinson converted a 3rd-and-8 by hitting Darryl Stonum for ten yards, then began showing his footwork. He went right for 24 yards, then left for 22 more down to the Bulldog 11-yard line. On second down after a false start penalty a roll-right froze State coverage and let Roundtree get wide open in the end zone for the 11yard scoring catch at 10:56.
The Bulldog offense required more snaps to answer but did, going 78 yards in eleven plays. And it let Relf show his arm early as he needed to find WR Brandon Heavens on 3rd-and-11 with a screen flip that netted 13 yards. Pass interference added 15 more yards to the Wolverine 41, then WR Michael Carr went up for a 20-yard grab. Relf converted third-and-short with a squirm through the middle for first-and-goal; and three hikes later with an empty backfield drilled a bullet to WR Arceto Clark at the goal line to tie things up at 5:31.
Sean Brauchle’s kickoff got to the end zone for touchback. Michigan tried a second down reverse sweep that LB K.J. Wright smelled out to drop both the runner and the side judge for a eight-yards loss. Michigan had to punt and Bulldog Marvin Bure got to the ball, the block rolling dead at UM’s 29-yard line. State couldn’t take full advantage but did take a lead as Derek DePasquale made good on a 42-yard field goal at 2:23.
Michigan returned this kickoff out to their 29 where Brauchle made the tackle. Robinson hit a couple of short throws for one move of chains, then after bobbling the snap found Junior Hemingway on the right sideline for a big 31-yard play down to the Dog 27. After a no-gain keeper Robinson had time to let Martavious Odoms get down the left sideline, behind CB Corey Broomfield, for the end zone catch at 0:34.
Starting from their 23-yard line, the Bulldogs got 20 fast yards on a hard run by Perkins. He got one more before the first quarter ended, with the most points in Gator Bowl scored in an opening period on the board. Facing 4th-and-short Ballard punched through left guard for five good yards, and Perkins might have made it all the way if not tripped at the 35. On 3rd-and-2 instead of running Relf play-faked and threw down the right sideline where Clark made a superb leaping grab (flags were tossed for interference anyway) at the five-yard line.
Relf bulled for three yards, then Ballard ricocheted off Michigan defenders for the go-ahead touchdown at 11:38.
Michigan was three-and-through this time, literally three plays at that. Because after a false start made it 3rd-and-13 Robinson overthrew Hemingway near the needed distance. Banks went way up for the pick at Michigan’s 43-yard line. This time the Bulldogs cashed in with Relf doing the hard work. He drew support on a 4th-and-two sweep with Ballard taking the pitch for five yards. Relf called his own number on 3rd-and-6 and got eight; then did it again on second down for first-and-goal at the Wolverine six.
Two plays later out of a power formation Relf banged through people in both uniforms for the one-yard touchdown dive and 24-14 lead at 6:35.
Down by double-digits now, the Wolverines tried to come back quickly. Big end Kevin Koger got behind coverage and carried tacklers down to the State 47, and Robinson ran for another first down. Two throws to Roundtree netted just a yard though, and Robinson lost a yard scrambling. With no faith in their placekickers Michigan went for 4th-and-10; Robinson might have had a man open at the five but only a Bulldog cheerleader was in position to catch that out-of-bound throw.
There was 3:26 left if State wanted to try to pad the lead. They did, taking 11 plays and all but 25 seconds to do it. Alternating runs and throws the Bulldogs got first downs at the 43 and (UM) 45 yard lines. Smith made another with a 18-yard catch and State used the first timeout at 1:18 for 2nd-and-6. A side-out throw and (first career) catch by WR Ricco Sanders had first down at the 15. His second career catch was even bigger, as Relf found him coming off the right slot for an open grab at the goal line and 31-14 scoreboard.
It stayed there but not without some more fun. Michigan’s Smith got a nice gainer on his catch only to be separated from the ball by Bonner with Broomfield recovering at the 45-yard line. With only three ticks left Relf airmailed it into the end zone where Michigan intercepted, but Sanders flattened Cameron Gordon to add a tackle to his day’s work.
State did not have to punt all first half; they did three plays into the second though, after Relf was sacked by J.B. Fitzgerald and had to recover his fumble. As it turned out Michigan nearly got back to where the loose ball had been as Hemingway returned it 53 yards, S Wade Bonner tackling him at the MSU 23. But what one special team gained another lost. With Robinson skipping a third-down throw short, Brendan Gibbons tried a 35-yard field goal and pushed it wide left at 11:46.
The Bulldog offense reestablished momentum with the longest drive of the day, and a scoring one to boot. Smith got it going with a 11-yard catch and Clark moved the chains again with a 12-yard grab. Third TB Robert Elliott bit off another 18 yards, and on third down Relf faked the handoff and punched down to the five-yard line. On the next third down as he squirmed for the goal line the ball came free and Michigan thought they’d recovered in the end zone. Review reversed the fumble call and given a fourth down Ballard broke the invisible plane a millisecond before crashing into a UM linebacker making it 38-14 at 6:19.
Lots of practice, and increasingly short MSU kickoffs, let Odoms start the next UM series on their 49 yard line. State’s first penalty of the afternoon, on third down, gave a free first down at the Bulldog 40. On 2nd-and six Roundtree netted ten with his catch. Robinson was swarmed on third down for a loss but Wright got his facemask in the process, for first-and-goal at the 7. Four plays later it was 4th and still seven, then a dozen as showing blitz resulted in a false start. Robinson lofted it for the back-right corner and Hemingway; this time Banks was in front and broke it up at 1:06.
What ensued was State’s longest from-scrimmage play of the season, covering 81 yards; though the throw itself went barely four yards as Relf dumped off to Perkins under pressure. But the back juked Kenny Wilkins and aided by a crushing block from Heavens was in the clear down the right side…or at least until he tired and James Rogers dragged him down at the seven-yard line. After review to confirm the ball came free after the tackle, tailback Ballard did some dragging of his own, pulling tacklers into the end zone with him for the 45-14 margin.
Michigan got out to their 49 before Broomfield beat blocking to drop Robinson for loss on third down; then Banks broke up a long throw to Hemingway to force turnover on downs at the Wolverine 44. Relf immediately threw to WR Michael Carr for 13 yards, then a holding call and couple of Adrian Marcus punches left 3rd-and-10 at the 31-yard line. Relf dropped into good protection as Carr came open across the middle for the catch and run into the end zone at 10:31.
And that was all the afternoon’s scoring. Michigan did drive as far as State’s 16 on the ensuing possession only to have three Robinson passes go un-caught. Tyler Russell quarterbacked State’s other two turns with the ball, never throwing but letting first Elliott and then Adrian Marcus pound the ground. Michigan’s final series also had a fourth-down failure as Roundtree dropped Robinson’s throw.
Robinson had a season-low 59 rushing yards, though he was 27-of-41 passing for 254 yards with two scores and an interception. Roundtree caught nine balls for 53 yards, Stonum seven for 59 more. Hutchins’ final day as a Dog was boring with just two punts, averaging 47 yards; Michigan’s only attempt was blocked. Final tackling statistics were dubious though, likely miss-calculated since MSU’s Charles Mitchell had only 5.5 official stops, Wright 4.5, and so on. Those numbers will be revised on game review later.
Mullen and MSU might put off reviewing for a while though, preferring to savor the experience along with several tens-of-thousands of closest friends. Of the 68,325 crowd at least 60% cheered for State and rang cowbells, in keeping with their bowl week behavior.
“We had a fabulous time, I know our fans did,” said Mullen. “I want to thank our fans for the tremendous support, when the busses pulled up there were thousands of people lined up. It got our players excited, just the atmosphere in a bowl game they created.”
Something else was created Saturday; though really it was already well-begun based on the winning regular season and Thursday’s announcement of a contract extension and upgrade for Mullen. Year-two was such a success, that everyone involved is eager to get going on the third season of this regime. Most of all the man in charge.
“The joy in winning is unbelievable,” said Mullen. “The team worked all year round and they left their legacy to day on Mississippi State football. We’ll enjoy the win, and tomorrow the 2011 team will be born.”