State 'Cheetahs' Fate With Overtime Victory

The play is called ‘cheetah', and Mississippi State was able to use it just in time to outrun defeat. Or just plain cheat it, as Chris Relf threw a 17-yard touchdown to LaDarius Perkins for the margin of 26-20 overtime victory over Louisiana Tech.

"I'll watch the film and be disappointed, maybe," Coach Dan Mullen said. "But I'm thrilled right now."

The disappointment will come from Mississippi State (2-2) needing an extra period to take care of the struggling guests. The thrill? That was provided by a series of serious clutch plays to first stave off the upset and then send Louisiana Tech (1-3) home with their latest last-shot setback.

No home Bulldogs was more thrilled though than Perkins. The sophomore spent most of his night battering at or around an unexpectedly tough LaTech Bulldog defense. But on the second snap of MSU's overtime series, Perkins was sent downfield without the ball on the ‘cheetah' call.

"It was a play we'd been working on in practice, where the receiver goes in motion and goes to the outlet and I was running a wheel-route," Perkins said. "And at first I didn't know Relf had thrown the ball."

Relf darned nearly didn't. 330-pound defensive tackle Justin Ellis shed blocking and was just about in the quarterback's face as Relf had rolled left. The quarterback pulled back on his first pump and managed to loose a semi-sidearm heave just in time while Perkins dashed down the left sideline, a step in front of linebacker Jay Dudley.

"I was looking on the outside of the field!" Perkins admitted. "But I looked up again and the ball was in the light, coming to me. I knew I had to catch the ball and I was trying to make sure I didn't go out of bounds." Perkins made the catch in-stride and inbounds, and spent the next half-minute bouncing off celebrating teammates.

The touchdown toss won it outright because Louisiana Tech had failed on their overtime turn. On second down, too, at the 20-yard line. Impressive freshman quarterback Nick Isham had picked State apart much of the evening but this time he got in a hurry and tried to hit Taulib Ikharo at the goal line. The throw went off both those hands, and right into the waiting mitts of S Nickoe Whitley behind him.

"I just did my assignment and the ball came to me," Whitley said. "I could kind of tell how the ball was coming and how he was going backwards that he was going to miss it."

Not so coincidentally, it was another and in the overall picture even more important interception that made State's win possible. After tying the tally 20-20 at 8:42 of the fourth period, Isham got the ball back at 6:50 and directed a ten-play drive to the Bulldog 20-yard line. On 3rd-and-five with field goal position secured, Isham made his first real ‘freshman' mistake by going for the kill. The end zone, rather, where CB Johnthan Banks was able to pick him off at 2:42.

"That was huge, because you're talking about we're going to have to race down the field trying to get a field goal if they kicked a field goal," Mullen said. Given that Teck kicker Matt  Nelson had already hit twice it was a safe assumption they would have.

Making that play all the more dramatic, if possible, was how it had been set up. Tech should have been stopped two minutes earlier as on third-and-long Isham had a throw carom off Whitley's hands, then off Banks in-turn…and some how end up caught by Hunter Lee for a 28-yard gainer. "I missed it, then Banks missed it, and they caught it," Whitley said. "Just a bad play. But we had to get it back together."

"You're thinking to yourself come on, we've got to make a play!" Mullen admitted of the bizarre bad break. Oddly though, "From that point on I think we made just about every play the rest of the game."

Perkins got the touchdown, and the defense made the do-or-die stops. But it was Relf who may well have enjoyed the outcome most; none could find out as he did not come to the post-game press conference. To that point the senior quarterback had, to be kind, endured a rough evening of increasing frustrations. Before overtime he was just 13-of-28 for 147 yards and an interception, and been held to 20 rushing yards.

One timely toss changed everything. "I don't think Chris played his best game at all," Mullen said. "But give him credit. He stood in there, under pressure, and threw the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime. That's one that 15 years from now people are going to remember, none of the other ones!"

The 17-year-old Isham had to be content with winning the stat sheet, 29-of-40 for 233 yards and a third-quarter touchdown to Quinton Patton for a 17-17 tie at the time. He was sacked four times and had the two fatal interceptions at the end, but left all impressed with his poise and prowess.

"He's a young quarterback, but he's a good young quarterback," Whitley said. "The pressure kind of got to him and he didn't really know what we were doing on that play." The last few series of regulation and in overtime State mixed up both the pass rush combinations and coverages, leading to those turnovers.

Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes may well be second-guessing the reliance on Isham's arm, as tailback Lennon Creer was hurting State on the ground with 82 yards on 24 carries. He scored on a four-yard run in the second period and was getting consistent gains in the last half. Tech finished with 107 rushing yards and 359 total, to 340 for the home team and 176 on the ground.

It wasn't exactly the ground-pounding State expected. "For one they brought the safety for run-support," starting TB Vick Ballard said. "I think we could have played better but we didn't execute at high enough level. But we came away with a win."

Ballard had 68 of that total, and the team's first offensive touchdown on a 11-yard rumble in the second quarter. But not the first Bulldog touchdown; that was provided on a most remarkable and impromptu effort from WR Chad Bumphis in punt return role. Tech punter Ryan Allen was outstanding with a 45.1 average and his first was a 72-yard shot over Bumphis' head. The wideout also bobbled his first recovery taking him back to State's 18-yard line with coverage converging.

Finally gaining control, Bumphis made Jamel Johnson miss and got the first block from WR Arceto Clark to head rightward before cutting against the entire grain. Everything was open to the left side and with S Louis Watson and Banks taking care of the last potential tacklers Bumphis finished his 82-yard return at 9:20.

A Bulldog punt in the third quarter also proved crucial, because Tech's Blasher Saintvil (no typo) was interfered with by his own blocker for a turnover recovered by MSU's Wade Bonner at the 20-yard line. It led to a 24-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale, who had a 36-yarder in the second period.

"It was great to see our guys make some plays in special teams," Mullen said. Baker Swedenburg averaged 44.7 yards on his seven punts with net-negative return yards by Tech. Bulldog kickoffs and coverage were no better than usual but not too damaging this time.

Bulldog RG Quentin Saulsberry credited Tech's defense for stifling the ground game and getting pressure on Relf too many times. "They executed their gameplan at times. They were physical up front, credit to them they played their tail off tonight. We made some more mental mistakes than they did. But you have to keep striving and come out with a win."

Mullen almost certainly like much of what he reviews tomorrow, yet showed a decidedly upbeat attitude in post-game. "Our guys continued to play and continued to fight for four quarters. And beyond," he said. "And when they needed to make a play they stepped up.

"It's hard to win a Division I football game. Go ask the sixty teams that lost today how hard it is to win. That's a huge win for us, a momentum builder for our guys and gets us on the right track where we need to be with a big game coming up next week."

Mississippi State faces another Bulldog team next Saturday, but a much more imposing one as they travel to Georgia (2-2) for a noon eastern time kickoff in Athens.

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