Mississippi State’s Deddrick Thomas follows his blockers as he returns a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Massachusetts on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
November 5, 2017 12:12:49 AM
STARKVILLE -- Dan Mullen had the grounds to rip off one for the highlight reel at halftime.
Mississippi State's football coach could have given his offense a halftime speech for the ages after watching it gain 4.2 yards per play, commit two turnovers, and convert 25 percent of its a third downs against Massachusetts in the first 30 minutes. Those woes were the primary reason for MSU's seven-point deficit to UMass.
Mullen didn't see the need for that kind of speech. He saw MSU's problems differently.
"In that situation, a lot of guys can start to press. You can hear, 'Hey give me the ball, I'm going to go make a play, call this play, we have to do this.' Everybody calm down," Mullen said. "We just need 11 guys to go out there and do their jobs. We did that much better in the second half."
MSU did exactly that.
The Bulldogs averaged 6.8 yards per play in the second half -- including an eye-popping 6.76 yards per carry -- to earn a 34-23 victory Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. MSU did it in a way that proved Mullen's message sunk in.
"In a way, it's hard to not say, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that,' then you start doing too much and just hurt yourself," MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
In the beginning, it looked as if Mullen made schematic adjustments. UMass bottled up MSU's rushing attack, as linebackers Jarrell Addo, Bryton Barr, and Steve Casali combined for 30 tackles (one-and-a-half) for a loss. Their efforts helped limit MSU to one field goal and no touchdowns in its final six possessions of the first half.
The Bulldogs (7-2) took the second-half kickoff and drove 75 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. MSU did it by hitting passes over the middle where blitzing linebackers would have been. Fitzgerald ended the drive with a touchdown on a perimeter run, which was another way to avoid linebackers.
Fitzgerald didn't see it that way. They saw the first half as a simple matchup of solid defense against lacking offense.
"It was just reads within the play," Fitzgerald said. "That wasn't me checking to anything."
Said left tackle Martinas Rankin, "That's a team that's small, so they do a lot of moving, and we were just trying to do too much and trying to kill them a little too much instead of staying with our fundamentals."
Fitzgerald was 14-for-26 with 139 yards and two interceptions, but he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while junior running back Aeris Williams had 24 carries for 114 yards to give the Bulldogs 254 yards on the ground.
All that's left is to find a way to prevent another lackluster first half next week when MSU plays host to No. 1 Alabama.
Mullen credited UMass. He said MSU knew it was playing an "excellent" team and said cornerback Isaiah Rodgers is one of the best MSU has faced this season.
Mullen also knows teams efforts like the one he saw Saturday happen on occasion.
"We had a good week of practice. I thought we prepared real well but didn't play to our standard in the first half," Mullen said. "I really am proud of how our guys battled for four quarters."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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