This one certainly was. Mississippi State needed a pair of fourth-down stops either side of midfield to preserve the minimal margin and stave off the upset-minded Falcons. Each time the Bulldog defense eventually rose to those occasions, forcing incompleted passes by Matt Johnson. The offense was unable to pad that fragile lead, but did burn up fourth-quarter clock and pin Bowling Green deep each time.
Including the very final Falcon chance, with three seconds left from their 29-yard line. A completion and the now-standard series of throwarounds ended with a loose ball recovered by CB Tolando Cleveland at State’s 41.
“A win is a win We’ll take it,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “We talked about finishing he game, and I tell you what, one thing we did tonight was finish the game.”
Successfully finishing their last non-conference contest of the season left the Dogs 3-3 going into a second open date. Bowling Green left Scott Field 5-2 and still looking for bowl eligibility. Mullen, who spent two seasons as an assistant at Bowling Green, wasn’t concerned about any nailbiter with the MAC guest.
“Give them credit, that’s a good football team, the top team it looks like in that conference. It’s great to be 3-3 at this point of the season, obviously you’d like to be better. But we’ll take it.”
Mississippi State had to finish this one out in a much harder manner than the announced sellout crowd of 55,148 would have thought. Certainly not after the Bulldogs scored on an impressive opening drive and led twice by 11 points. The second half belonged to the Falcons though, and had they been of a mind to gamble on a two-point attempt in the third quarter this one would have been entirely up for grabs.
“I know we’re happy with the win,” said Jones. “I don’t think we’re happy with the way we played.”
Fortunately for the home team, a defense often frustrated by un-finished tackles, missed coverages, and some badly-timed penalties rose to the ultimate occasion. “I don’t know that we played a great defensive game for the duration,” Mullen said. “But I’ve got a lot of trust in our guys on defense to step up at key moments to make plays.”
They did in that concluding quarter, first on 4th-and-2 at the Bulldog 40-yard line. Johnson escaped MLB Benardrick McKinney long enough to float a throw down the right side. CB Justin Cox and LB Matt Wells were close enough that Austin Valdez had the throw go off his hands at 8:52. State took the ball the other way 54 yards with some clutch throws from QB Dak Prescott to Joe Morrow, including one made with a knee already on the ground so a rollover strip was not a fumble.
State reached the eight-yard line with fourth down. Instead of sending out struggling PK Devon Bell, who’d hit the right post on a 44-yard clanker to open the quarter, Mullen went for it. “I wanted to score, I wanted to put the ball in Dak’s hands. I thought he was running the ball pretty well and figured that was a good opportunity to finish out the game. It didn’t go exactly as I planned, but that was our decision.”
It was close as Prescott was held-up right at the mark, the sideline official running in seemingly a foot in the wrong direction. Review held up the original call and Bowling Green had possession with 4:21 to get in field goal range or better. Johnson took a third-down sack but a shaky facemask was called. A completion had the ball on the BGSU 46 with first down, when the Dog defense turned up the pressure without blitzing.
Two incompletions later the Falcons tried to catch State over-rushing and ran a draw that lost a yard. With 4th-and-11 Johnson was flushed right and fired for Ryan Burbrink. CB Will Redmond, making his first college appearance after a year-and-half suspension, was credited with the break-up around the State 40 at 1:15.
“We all said put the ball down,” Jones said. “We came out with a mindset we were going to shut these boys down and get the win.”
Practically sealing the win was a first-down burst of eleven yards by RB LaDarius Perkins for a fresh set of downs, meaning BGSU would have to use all three timeouts in succession. “That was a key, that was a real big key to the game. I found a little hole, the o-line did a great job of blocking, I was trying to get a first down and try to run the clock out.” State did have to snap it one more time with 0:12 showing. Prescott ran around until firing into the end zone leaving just those three seconds.
The evening began with more drama than trauma. After missing three whole games and working in relief last week, QB Tyler Russell returned to starting status and looked sharp. He directed a 75-yard touchdown drive, completing all five passes with gainers of 10, 17, and 17 en route. WR Jameon Lewis rushed for 16 more to set up Perkins to get his first rushing touchdown in 51 weeks on a vault of right guard.
Three-game starter Prescott didn’t have the same first-series success. After Perkins dug the offense out of a first-down hole at the one-yard line with a 18-yard burst, Prescott forced a shot into double-coverage that was picked by BooBoo Gates and returned 34 yards to the Bulldog 13.
“The interception was all my fault,” Prescott said. “Just eyes in a bad spot and, I mean it was stupid.” Bowling Green was only able to get a 35-yard field goal out of the break, and Prescott immediately redeemed his mistake. On first down he cut behind a big block from RB Ashton Shumpert and was gone 75 yards for the a 14-3 lead at 5:36.
“To come back and have a good play, it was good,” said Prescott in obvious understatement.
State downed a punt on the four-yard line only to have BGSU go on a true drive, sparked by a pass interference call that negated CB Kivon Coman’s interception. Johnson, not noted for his footwork, scampered for gains when Travis Greene wasn’t. Jones said this was something not seen in scouting.
“Everybody was looking, this dude was running, I think that shocked everybody. We had to adjust to that too.” Andre Givens scored a seven-yard touchdown at 4:15.
This put some spark back in the Dog offense as for the first time this season they really pushed up-tempo, with Prescott calling for snaps as soon as legal. He and Perkins ran for first downs and the Falcons helped with an interference call. Prescott took it the last ten yards on a called keeper. The 21-10 margin should have held at halftime except the Falcons needed all but the last five seconds to get in field goal range, Tyler Tate making the 45-yarder as time expired.
Tate did miss from 45 yards in the third quarter, but their next chance the Falcons went on a 76-yard series as Burbrink lost whoever was covering for 17 and 24 yards gainers and got 15 bonus yards on a S Nickoe Whitley facemask penalty. On 3rd-and-goal Johnson fooled the interior defense and found open space around left end for the touchdown. Coach Dave Clawson settled for one point and a 21-20 scoreboard.
Which is how it read after the pitch-and-catch last play ended, the final lateral tossed by a lineman in the chaos. After controlling the first half on both sides, the Bulldogs struggled to the finish with just eight first downs, 129 yards, and no points. Russell saw an interesting approach by the Falcon defense. “I think they were blitzing Dak a lot more than me, and they were just going to try to drop eight and get in a position where I would throw it into double coverage or something.”
Russell didn’t bite, and was 12-of-14 for the night with 102 yards and no turnovers. Prescott was 7-of-11 for 75 yards and the lone pick. Between them both passers used nine receivers with Morrow, Lewis, and Perkins all getting four catches for a combined 112 yards. Most of it came after catches, too.
“I told Jameon before the game if they give us a lot of bubbles I’m going to take them,” Russell said. “I think I threw it three times. It was helping the line out, getting the ball out quick and in playmakers’ hands and letting them make something happen.”
Prescott finished with 139 rushing yards and two scores, while Perkins produced 83 yards on 16 rushes with the touchdown. Greene led BGSU with 99 yards on 15 attempts while Johnson had 29 net on six keepers or scrambles. Jared Cohen caught throws for 51 yards and Burbrink had 66 yards on 4 balls.
Johnson was 20-of-34 with 224 yards and no turnovers, and was only sacked once though at times the Dogs did get some pressure. But first they had to pick up the play, Jones said. “On the zone play they were showing pass and the d-ends getting upfield and it was making it tough on the inside guys. But they’re good at what they do.”
Just not good enough to pull off a defining upset, though for the second half State gave the guest a few too many chances as the offense went cold. “We got a lot of penalties, we got a lot of missed blocks,” Mullen said. “We’re really banged-up up front all week, we had six guys that had started games out when we started practice this week. The rest of the guys kind of limped through the game.”
Many a Bulldog is limping into this open date, all sides of the roster. But it is coming off a win and, as Russell said, “The only thing that matters is you play to win. And we got the win.”