NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tucker Day took one for the team.
Punting for the first time since Sept. 11 against North Carolina State, the fifth-year senior from nearby Brentwood, Tennessee, lined up to boot the ball away during the second quarter Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium.
One play prior, what looked like an interception of Will Rogers by Vanderbilt’s Jaylen Mahoney was overturned on replay as video evidence showed the football hit the ground. Still, it looked like the Commodores would get off the field regardless.
Then Vandy defensive lineman Alex Williams raced across the line of scrimmage before the snap and practically clotheslined the Mississippi State punter, spearing Day to the turf. The junior was flagged for offsides as well as roughing the kicker, pushing the Bulldogs across midfield and giving their drive new life.
Six plays later, MSU scored on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Rogers to Makai Polk. Instead of forfeiting the ball with a seven-point lead, the Bulldogs went up by two scores.
They never looked back.
Rogers tossed four touchdown passes, Mississippi State took advantage of several Vanderbilt mistakes, and the Bulldogs (4-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) put up their biggest scoring output of the year so far in an 45-6 win over the Commodores (2-6, 0-4 SEC).
“I thought we did a lot better job of fighting through adversity,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. “I thought we did some really good stuff, but then if we stubbed our toe or made a mistake or something, I thought we did a good job battling through that.”
Rogers set a career-high with his four scoring tosses, finding Polk twice and hitting Rufus Harvey III and Malik Heath for short touchdown passes. The sophomore finished 42 of 58 for 386 yards passing, but he threw two interceptions — three, had Mahoney’s pick stood.
Still, he was good enough to help the Bulldogs recover from a 49-9 loss to Alabama with the lopsided win they needed Saturday.
“I thought he was good overall — obviously had some sloppy play in the mix there, some pretty sloppy stuff,” Leach said of Rogers. “What he did best was he maintained his composure, was ready to play that next play, the next series, and then I think that rubbed off on our offensive unit and maybe even our team to a degree.”
And against the SEC’s worst football team, Emerson and Mississippi State’s defense delivered a strong game, holding Vanderbilt to 155 total yards on just 3.7 yards per play.
The Bulldogs limited Commodores quarterback Mike Wright to 12 of 17 passing for 122 yards and an interception while keeping him to nine rushes to negative-5 yards on the ground (including sacks.)
“It was a big game to get back on track, and I feel like we took care of the job,” cornerback Martin Emerson said.
It was the performance Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett insisted earlier this week his unit needed after giving up more than 500 yards against Alabama. Vanderbilt was held out of the end zone as field goals of 27 and 41 yards by Joseph Bulovas accounted for the Commodores’ only scoring.
“All 11 defenders play with bad intentions,” Emerson said. “I feel like this performance can happen often.”
Mississippi State, meanwhile, scored an opening-drive touchdown for the first time all season, going 79 yards in eight plays to set the tone. Rogers hit Polk in the end zone from 9 yards out to cap the series.
Brandon Ruiz added a 36-yard field goal before Rogers and Wright traded interceptions on back-to-back plays. Mahoney’s subsequent pick of Rogers was overturned and Williams’ penalty kept the Bulldogs’ offense on the field, a big turn of events that became bigger when Rogers hit Polk in stride in the back of the end zone.
Leach said the Cal transfer “provides an example of consistency” when he’s playing well — and despite the pair of touchdowns, the coach said Polk can still improve.
“He’s getting better,” Leach said of Polk. “I don’t think he’s played his best football.”
Harvey caught his first college touchdown with two minutes to go in the half after a Vanderbilt punt, giving the Bulldogs a 24-3 lead at the break.
The Commodores never really threatened in the second half, with Bulovas’ 41-yard kick midway through the third quarter the entirety of their scoring after halftime.
Mississippi State continued to add on. Rogers hit Heath on a crossing route for a 9-yard touchdown pass, and Woody Marks ran for a 5-yard score in the fourth quarter.
South Alabama transfer Chance Lovertich even saw his first action of 2021 in the fourth quarter, entering with 4:32 to go. Lovertich went 5 of 6 for 77 yards in his brief stint on the field, hitting Rara Thomas for a 28-yard touchdown with 51 seconds to go.
It was a fitting capper to a game in which Mississippi State got whatever it wanted, but the Bulldogs know that won’t be true in their next game. No. 15 Kentucky (6-1, 4-1 SEC) visits Davis Wade Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday in what will be a chance for a big win for the Bulldogs.
MSU will enjoy its win over Vanderbilt first, of course. But after 24 hours — the team’s self-imposed margin for flushing its prior contest — the Wildcats will be their sole focus.
“After tomorrow, it’s on to Kentucky,” Emerson said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.