Among the fray, Will Rogers sought out his mother in the first row of the stands.
The Mississippi State quarterback pushed through teammates, coaches and the rest of the crowd amassing at the back of the end zone. He handed Judy Rogers the football, the smile never leaving his face.
“She made a long trip back from Mississippi,” Rogers said. “There’s nobody more deserving to have that ball than her.”
And after Saturday’s game at No. 15 Texas A&M, there was no one more deserving of giving it to her than Rogers. The sophomore quarterback was 46 of 59 for 408 yards and three touchdowns, leading Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) to a 26-22 win over the Aggies (3-2, 0-2).
“It’s a huge win on the road,” Rogers said. “It’s an SEC West road win, so you can’t complain about that.”
There was nearly room to gripe. Once leading 24-13, Mississippi State handed Texas A&M the ball with under three minutes to go up just two points. The Bulldogs’ offense was sputtering, and the Aggies had their chance.
They couldn’t take it. Mississippi State’s defense forced a safety as Nathan Pickering sacked quarterback Zach Calzada in the end zone, giving the Bulldogs a four-point lead and a chance to run the clock out. They did.
Dillon Johnson’s 6-yard run gave Mississippi State the lone first down it needed to ice the game, and the Bulldogs went into victory formation to seal what Rogers called “a huge team win for all of us.”
“I’m just so proud of this team,” he said.
For the fourth time this season, Mississippi State outgained its opponent — the only contest in which that wasn’t the case was a 24-10 win Sept. 11 against now-No. 23 North Carolina State.
Head coach Mike Leach praised the Bulldogs’ ability to compete in all five games they’ve played.
“We were resilient in all of them, and I have to say I’m proud of our team for that,” Leach said.
He should be after Saturday’s win in which Mississippi State exploited a strong Texas A&M pass defense with what Leach said was the closest approximation to the true Air Raid offense this season has seen yet.
Rogers tossed two touchdown passes to Makai Polk and one to Jaden Walley as the Bulldogs got up and down the field.
“We’re getting closer,” Leach said. “We’re getting closer.”
There were drawbacks, though. On several drives, Mississippi State’s offense suddenly stalled. Three penalties in a short time on a key fourth-quarter drive turned a possible touchdown into a missed 49-yard field goal, keeping the lead at five points.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of moving the ball tonight,” Rogers said. “Obviously, we left some points out there that I’m still kind of frustrated about.”
But unlike previous games, Mississippi State didn’t turn the ball over a single time. The Bulldogs suppressed the Aggies’ passing offense and bent but didn’t break against a strong run game as Leach’s squad silenced the 100,000-plus crowd in College Station.
“It’s always good to win at Kyle Field,” Leach said. “I’ve done it more than most people have.”
He did it again Saturday night as Mississippi State took the lead for good on a 15-yard pass from Rogers to Polk with 1:16 left before halftime. The duo connected again midway through the third quarter to give the Bulldogs an 11-point lead.
A&M made a game of it. Calzada ran for a 25-yard touchdown, but the Aggies’ two-point conversion attempt was knocked away by safety Fred Peters. Seth Small’s 44-yard field goal with 5:39 to go made it a two-point game.
But when A&M got the ball back at its own 11 with 2:36 remaining, Pickering’s sack for a safety put a damper on the home team’s comeback effort.
Not for the first time under Leach, Mississippi State had pulled off a ranked road win in the SEC. Of course, the second-year Bulldogs coach has more on his mind.
“We’ve got to get a lot better,” Leach said. “I think we’ve improved, and we improved this week, but we have to get a lot better.”
Considering an Oct. 16 date with Alabama is next up on the schedule, he’s quite correct. The Bulldogs get a week off before the top-ranked Crimson Tide visit Davis Wade Stadium.
“We’re so blessed to be able to be in that position: to be able to play those guys at home in front of great fans,” Rogers said. “I’m looking forward to a great bye week, still getting better and getting ready for Alabama.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.