STARKVILLE — Davis Wade Stadium roared to life as Zavion Thomas raced down the right sideline for a 63-yard punt-return touchdown just three seconds before halftime Saturday night.
Thomas’ score cut No. 1 Georgia’s lead to just five points heading into the break and provided Mississippi State with some momentum after a half that featured little.
But MSU couldn’t capitalize on the electrifying play.
Georgia (10-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) came out in the third quarter and scored the next two touchdowns, giving the nation’s top-ranked team sufficient separation to defeat Mississippi State (6-4, 3-4 SEC) by a score of 45-19 on Saturday in Starkville.
Once again, MSU’s offense was the issue, managing just 308 total yards and struggling to sustain possessions throughout the game.
The maroon-and-white Bulldogs’ only two touchdowns came on Thomas’ punt return and after an interception put MSU just outside the red zone.
Mississippi State had no easy task against an impressive Georgia defense but missed several opportunities necessary to pull its first upset of a No. 1 team since a 6-3 win over Alabama in 1980 in Jackson.
The Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs twice, settled for two field goals inside the red zone and were generally less than their best on a chilly night in Starkville.
Georgia didn’t seem to be affected much by the crowd, the weather or anything else as it remained unbeaten on the year.
Answering Thomas’ punt-return score, wide receiver Ladd McConkey ran for a 70-yard touchdown within the opening minute of the third quarter.
Five minutes later, McConkey caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett IV.
Both touchdown drives featured questionable officiating, a theme all game.
Georgia appeared to get away with a block in the back on McConkey’s long touchdown run and was bailed out by a third-down pass interference call on cornerback Emmanuel Forbes on the next drive.
UGA also benefited from a forward progress call that negated an apparent fumble and recovery by MSU in the red zone early in the second quarter.
Mississippi State managed to hold Georgia to a 28-yard field goal on the drive, one of several strong stands by defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s unit on the night.
Apart from McConkey’s long run, MSU’s run defense was strong, and the Bulldogs intercepted Bennett twice.
Tyrus Wheat brought pressure that resulted in a first-quarter interception by Collin Duncan. In the third quarter, Wheat himself tipped and picked off a Bennett pass at the Georgia 22.
MSU cashed in there with a 6-yard passing touchdown from Will Rogers to Rufus Harvey.
It was perhaps the Bulldogs’ most efficient offensive drive of the day.
Mississippi State had just one first down on its first four drives, which included three punts and a fourth-down pass batted down by Georgia.
A 14-play, 62-yard possession ended in a field goal, cutting UGA’s lead to 10-3. Georgia responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive with Bennett running for a 4-yard touchdown.
Bennett finished 25 of 37 for 289 yards with three touchdown passes.
Rogers, by comparison, was 29 of 51 for 261 yards, one touchdown and no picks.
Mississippi State remains home to take on FCS opponent East Tennessee State (3-7, 1-7 Southern Conference) at 11 a.m. Saturday. It will be the Bulldogs’ last tuneup before the Nov. 24 Egg Bowl at Ole Miss.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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