Indeed it was. Ballard emphatically ended a couple of personal statistical droughts, scoring a pair of touchdowns on 102 rushing yards to lead Mississippi State over visiting Tennessee-Martin 55-17 at Scott Field. The host Bulldogs improved to 5-4, going over break-even for the first time since early September; while the FCS-division Skyhawks left 5-4 as well.
If any Dog had reason to celebrate the Homecoming game it was Ballard. After smashing State rushing touchdown records as a junior, he has found 2011 much tougher going and owned just five scores coming into the ninth game, none in the last four contests. Since opening night with a 69-yard burst at Memphis, Ballard hasn’t broken anything longer than 21 yards.
By the third period Ballard had addressed each. He put the Bulldogs on the board at 5:37 of the first quarter with a five-yard dash; then on the first series after halftime he caught a seam through the left side and beat everyone down the sideline for a 54-yard touchdown. Much of it was a true tightrope act with the sideline, too.
“I guess they anticipated me stepping out of bounds, because one dude had the angle and could have pushed me out,” said Ballard. “But he didn’t and I walked in the end zone.” Dove, really; his first score was more of a walk as excellent blocking by wide receivers such as Chris Smith made it easy going.
Ballard was able to earn his fourth 100-yard outing of the season. “Vick ran hard today,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s always going to run hard, and I was happy with some of the runs he made today. That touchdown was pretty impressive staying in bounds and balanced to finish it off.”
The entire Bulldog ground game was impressive at times for that matter, averaging over seven yards per rush with 288 net yards. Two more running scores were notched as well, both by redshirt freshmen though just one by a tailback. In only his second game since returning from a knee injury TB Nick Griffin took advantage of fourth-quarter opportunity for 80 yards on ten carries with a five-yard touchdown. The other was by third QB Dylan Favre as he picked up a bobbled snap and scampered in from 12 yards out.
State also got good gains from alternate TB LaDarius Perkins with 45 yards, an 26 more from WR Jameon Lewis as he went ‘wild’ on three consecutive carries in the third quarter. “When the whole group is doing good, there’s nothing better,” Ballard said.
Except, even the steady ground game and passing plays that very nearly equaled the output with 282 yards, all Dogs felt they could have done better. Should have, actually. As starting QB Tyler Russell said, “It’s good to be disappointed and still win.”
Disappointment with a blowout victory? Yes. Mullen and MSU tried to avoid slighting the Skyhawks, who played up to their aggressive reputation on both sides of the ball and never backed down from the Dogs. Still there was no hiding Mullen’s annoyance at, well, almost everything.
“We played a decent game tonight. Give UT-Martin a lot of credit,” Mullen said. “We didn’t give up a ton of points, but we have to get a lot better and we’ve got some things we can improve on before next week’s game.”
Lots of things in fact. UTM almost matched MSU’s ground gains with 269 yards, 122 by Mississippi native and McNair family product Jason on 27 tough carries. Skyhawk quarterback Derek Carr was plenty impressive as well, handling Bulldog pressure to complete 19-of-31 throws for 167 yards and a touchdown without an interception.
So even as his team built a 28-3 lead before intermission, Mullen went to the locker room after saying he was “embarrassed” by the opening half. “I didn’t like anything,” he said following the game. “We were giving up yard after yard after yard on defense. We didn’t adjust, we didn’t make plays. I thought offensively we made a couple of big plays but we were sloppy, we had a few three-and-outs in the first half.” Mullen even mentioned the sloppiness began in game week and took blame for not getting everything fixed prior to kickoff.
“I don’t know if we were really locked-in as we have been in the past,” LB Cameron Lawrence said. “Maybe the sloppiness kind of carried over onto the field tonight.”
It seemed that way from the start at UTM took the opening turn for 71 yards and a dozen snaps. Though the Skyhawks missed a field goal, their only shot at a lead, that initial drive set a time-of-possession theme that continued. The FCS team got off 82 snaps in all to State’s 69, and had almost nine more minutes with the ball.
Lawrence admitted State’s defensive scheme remained basic all evening, and the first unit did manage to allow only a second-quarter field goal. But he was as embarrassed as his coach at how UTM pounded the ground. “Because no one has been able to run the ball like that on us. It very frustrating.”
Fortunately the offense did make enough first half plays to avoid serious scare. After the missed Skyhawk kick Russell directed the go-ahead drive of 80 yards capped by Ballard’s first touchdown. Special teams delivered the second as CB Johnthan Banks took a punt back 65 yards to double the lead. And before the quarter was out it was the air game’s turn to tally, as Russell hit WR Chad Bumphis over the middle for what became a 78-yard touchdown connection.
“He was my third progression, I went through my reads and he made a play,” said Russell. The starter was 9-of-18 on the evening with an interception in the third quarter and 183 yards. “I don’t think I played up to par this game at all,” Russell said.
Alternate QB Chris Relf did. He only got two series this game, but manufactured touchdowns of both. And each time it was WR Arceto Clark catching a Relf pass for the score. In the second quarter Relf hung one high and Clark just went up to get it in the end zone with two defenders near. Late in the third period Relf again looked for #19 behind the goal line and this time delivered a ball that got his coach’s attention.
“His last touchdown, I was real impressed with that throw,” said Mullen. “You could see the veteran-ness. The look wasn’t exactly the way you planned it out or expected to be, he managed the situations well and never got in panic.” The 19-yard play was Relf’s last, making him 5-of-6 for 61 yards and two scores.
Clark caught five balls in all for 96 yards and those two touchdowns, while Bumphis had four catches and 89 yards with the big hitter. Five more Dogs had a reception, and ten got an official rush. “Our guys made some plays athletically,” Mullen said. “We spread the ball around, different guys got to touch it and do some different things. That was OK.” So was how State out-gained the Skyhawks 570 yards to 454 despite so many fewer snaps.
What wasn’t OK was…it should have been even better. “There was some sloppiness on offense and things I want to look at,” Mullen said. “We missed some reads throwing the ball, some silly penalties. That’s all coaching so we have to get that cleaned up.”
The defense came in for critiques too, though it needed noting after halftime and with leads of 35-3 and 42-10 second- and third-teams got almost all that action. Lawrence added eight tackles to his team-leading total, though three-time-consecutive league defensive lineman of the week Fletcher Cox wasn’t credited with a single stop. Nor did State have any sacks of Carr.
“The best thing we got out of that is a lot of guys got to play today,” said Mullen. “We wanted to make sure we played a lot of players today and got some experience.”
Seasoning that may prove needed in Mississippi State’s remaining regular season. The Bulldogs are a win away from bowl eligibility, but face three SEC foes including top-ten ranked Alabama and Arkansas in the next two weekends. The Crimson Tide will not be in a good mood at all after their overtime loss to LSU, either. Not that the Bulldogs can spare any concern for others’ issues at this crunch-point.
“We made a lot of mistakes tonight but that’s something you can get away with against an opponent like UT-Martin,” said Lawrence. “But we plan on cleaning things up and being flawless against Alabama.”