STARKVILLE — Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen wanted to see how his football team would handle being ranked and heavily favored to win Homecoming.
After escaping Alabama-Birmingham with a 29-24 win Saturday night, he was far from pleased with the No. 24 Bulldogs” penalty-ridden, sluggish performance.
MSU totaled a season-high 11 penalties in the game and went into the halftime break tied at 10, looking nowhere near as crisp as the Blazers. The Bulldogs were out-gained by over 100 yards in the first half.
But he”ll take it, especially because the team”s fifth-straight win clinched bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007.
“I was worried,” Mullen said. “That was a tough game last week. Our kids were being patted on the back by everybody this week in class, being told how good they are. To find a way to win a tough ball game was fantastic.
“Our student body, stop patting them on the back and kick them in the rear end and tell them they gotta get going.”
Five field goals from kicker Derek DePasquale gave the Bulldogs a needed lift as its offense flamed out on three redzone chances.
The Bulldogs (6-2, 3-2) needed every bit of DePasquale”s career-best performance, including his final field goal from 28 yards out, which gave MSU its final score.
And with under two minutes to go, the Bulldogs got a game-changing play from freshman wideout Michael Carr, who forced a fumble by Starkville native Pat Shed to end the game in victory formation.
Mullen said he made the decision to go with DePasquale for field goals in pregame warmups, citing the juniors” get-off times. DePasquale and Brauchle have alternated field goal and kickoff duties this season.
“He”s done great you know, and like I”ve said all year, I believe in our kickers,” Mullen said. “They have the talent, they”ve just gotten themselves into a funk during the season. You answer the question, well what do you want to do about kickers? Do you practice it? Do you have competition in practice? They both kick really well at practice and that hasn”t been the issue all year.”
The Bulldogs” vaunted rushing attack, which averaged 211.9 yards a game entering Saturday”s contest, looked far from threatening without workhorse Vick Ballard in the first half. The junior, who rolled an ankle in the fourth quarter against Florida, was in uniform but was rested ahead of next week”s contest against Kentucky.
Of MSU”s 103 total yards of first half offense, 71 came on the ground.
Mullen responded by yanking guard Mark Melichar from his right guard spot and bringing in center J.C. Brignone, who missed last week”s game to rest a sprained knee. The move allowed Quentin Saulsberry to move back to guard, and the Bulldogs had immediate success with 171 total yards, nine first downs and over 10 minutes of possession in the third quarter.
“We”re down five offensive starters in that game,” Mullen said. “Half your lineup was out, and at halftime [Brignone] came up to me and said ”Coach, I”m good.” And I said, good, what”s good? He said, ”I”m 100 percent.” We weren”t sure he could go a full game with our trainers. He was limited at practice again this week.
“It just settles us down. We had a pretty productive second half, and it brought us some leadership back to our offensive line.”
Redshirt freshman running back LaDarius Perkins was the beneficiary of the team”s decision to sit Ballard, whom Mullen said was struggling to cut laterally in practice this week.
Perkins finished with a career-high 131 yards on 18 carries, 90 of which came in the second half.
“I had to make the plays,” Perkins said. “I was not focused on filling Vick”s shoes but making the plays I had to make. They were able to pinch the inside so we did our job and got to the corners to make plays.”
But MSU settled for three field goals and were taxed by UAB”s consistent offense, which put the Blazers up 24-23 following a 1-yard touchdown run from quarterback Bryan Ellis.
Ellis finished with a game-high 236 passing yards on 23-of-45 completions.
MSU opened the second half in fine fashion, marching 61 yards in six plays following a 20-yard run from Carr and a 21-yarder from Chad Bumphis. Perkins finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Bulldogs a 17-10 lead.
The up-and-down play continued however, as Brauchle booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds and gave the Blazers first down at their own 40.
A long catch-and-run from UAB”s Mike Jones led to a 2-yard scoring run from Daniel Borne.
The Bulldogs clapped back with a 40-yard catch from Brandon Heavens, but they were unfortunate not to capitalize with a touchdown. Instead, they settled for a 29-yard field goal from DePasquale.
MSU then followed with another short kickoff and two missed tackles which set up the Blazers at the 50-yard line.
The 20-17 lead swelled with another DePasquale field goal before UAB took a 24-23 lead through an Ellis touchdown run.
“They did a good job of frustrating us at the very beginning because they came out punching,” MSU linebacker Chris White said. “They had an explosive offense and we figured that out quickly. We kept our heads in the game and made the plays to hold them.”
Shed led the Blazers with 69 rushing yards on 16 carries and 211 all-purpose yards.
DePasquale”s five field goals tied a school mark held by Brian Hazelwood and Tim Rogers.
The Bulldogs return to play next Saturday when they host Kentucky.