Mississippi State beat NC State, 51-28, in the Belk Bowl Wednesday afternoon in what was perhaps the Bulldogs’ best all-around game of the season.
Here are the grades the team deserves based on its performance:
When your team averages 33 points per game and you score 31 in the first half, good things are often on the way. Such was the case for the Bulldogs in the Belk Bowl.
Mississippi State’s offense capitalized on two turnovers in the first quarter and never let go of the lead. In his final game, quarterback Dak Prescott was near-flawless, completing 25-of-42 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns. He did throw one interception on the night, but it was more the result of a brilliant defensive adjustment than poor decision. Junior wide receiver Fred Ross caught seven passes for 74 yards and a touchdown — putting him over 1,000 yards on the year — and De’Runnya Wilson hauled in five for 96 and a score.
And surprisingly, the ground game was a factor. Before Wednesday’s game, Mississippi State’s running back corps had combined for three touchdowns on the year — just one of many signs of a struggling unit. Against NC State, both Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert found paydirt, nearly doubling that total. The running backs had averaged just 73 yards per game as a unit in the regular season, but Wednesday, they rushed for 109.
Though the Bulldogs will never play another game with Prescott under center, the performance of younger weapons Wednesday was a promising indicator of what’s to come.
This year, Mississippi State’s defense has been one of the biggest detriments to the team, and its ability to steal the ball was virtually absent. The defense managed only 12 turnovers in 12 regular season games this year.
But on the first play of the Belk Bowl, a strong pass rush disrupted Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett and the Bulldogs nabbed an interception. Later in the quarter, defensive back Brandon Bryant grabbed another with one of the most ridiculous catches of the year. Mississippi State’s offense scored after both turnovers while the defense kept the Wolfpack off the board climbed to a 21-0 lead after 15 minutes, allowing for smooth sailing for the final 45.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Multiple times this year, special teams has made a difference in a game for Mississippi State. There was the punt return allowed for a touchdown that led to a loss to Alabama and the last-minute blocked kick that led to the win over Arkansas. Against NC State, the special teams unit didn’t make much of an impact at all.
Logan Cooke averaged 38.5 yards per punt with one inside the 20 and didn’t allow a single return, while Westin Graves knocked a 39-yarder — his only attempt of the night — through to give the Bulldogs a 31-14 lead at the half. Even though he missed an extra point late in the game, it wasn’t enough to throw the course of the game in the slightest.
With the offense and defense on their games, the special teams’ low-key night was probably a good thing.
After the game, coach Dan Mullen told reporters that he wanted to make sure his team was wide awake for its final game of the year. Last season, the previously No. 1 team in the nation fell to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and it left a sour taste in their mouths. Whatever he did, he should make sure to repeat it.
Mississippi State came out hot Wednesday and never cooled down, thanks partly to two gutsy calls by Mullen. The coach opted to go for it twice on fourth-and-1 inside the NC State 30-yard line. Both were converted, and both led to scores that opened up the game. There was only one busted coverage on the night by the defense and Mullen found a near-perfect balance between Prescott’s arm and his legs — something the quarterback has struggled with at times this season.
Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC this preseason, and it’s something the players and coaches have reminded the public of many times throughout the year. Despite that, the team did suffer heavier expectations than normal thanks to last year’s historic campaign. After the Belk Bowl, Prescott mentioned how he decided to come to Starkville because he wanted to change expectations, and he has certainly done that. But because of those new expectations, playing in the Belk Bowl might not have fulfilled the dreams of many Bulldogs fans or players. The way Mississippi State went out, however, left little to be desired.