Bulldogs find enough to sneak past Knights|[12/30/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mistake-filled game lovely for MSU fans

MEMPHIS — The record-breaking running back was stopped, and the punters were the ones setting records. Passes clanged to turf like hot potatoes and almost every running attempt looked like a rugby scrum.

For everyone outside of Starkville, Saturday’s Autozone Liberty Bowl was a nightmarish display of inept offense and suffocating defense. For those lucky enough to be card-carrying, cowbell-clanging residents of Bulldog Nation, however, it might just have been one of the most beautiful games they’ve ever witnessed.

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Anthony Dixon dove over the pile from a yard out with just under two minutes to play, giving Mississippi State a hard-fought 10-3 win over Central Florida. It was State’s first bowl win, and its first bowl game, since 2000 and completed a remarkable turnaround that it hopes is only just beginning.

“We don’t get style points. We just find a way to win. As you evolve into a championship program, that’s what you have to do. Find a way to win. We’ve done that,” Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said.

State hadn’t found a way to win since 2000. It hadn’t won more than three games in a season since then, and hadn’t been to a bowl since beating Texas A&M on a snowy New Year’s Eve in Shreveport seven years ago. Croom took over in 2004 and found himself on the hot seat as the Bulldogs endured three more losing seasons.

Croom stuck to his long-range rebuilding plan, though, and it paid off. The Dogs finished 8-5 this season — the most victories they’ve had in a season since 2000 — and return all but a few starters next season. Tailback Anthony Dixon, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with a 95-yard game on Saturday, is only a sophomore and quarterback Wesley Carroll is a freshman. After enduring the lows, Croom was excited about how his team has handled the highs of success and the position it’s in as it prepares to take the next step.

“There’ll come a time when we’re more explosive on offense, have more speed on defense. What we’re doing is good, but you need more speed,” Croom said. “What’s happened now is we’ve learned how to win. The intangibles are in the program. We learned how to handle success.”

All of the patience learned over the last few years served the Bulldogs well in their return to postseason play.

Central Florida, the Conference USA champion, shut down State’s offense all day. Carroll completed just 8 of 18 passes for 39 yards in the game, and Dixon was held to 55 yards on 15 carries through three quarters. MSU punter Blake McAdams set a Liberty Bowl record with 11 punts. The Bulldogs didn’t convert on third down until the opening drive of the second half and was just 2-for-13 in the game.

“They definitely had a good scheme for us, We had some good plays called and they had good plays called to defend us. It wasn’t like we weren’t trying,” Carroll said.

Fortunately for State, UCF was struggling just as much.

Kevin Smith, who needed 181 yards to break Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA rushing record, gained 119 — on 35 carries, and average of only 3.4 yards. He didn’t have a run longer than 15 yards. Quarterback Kyle Israel threw three interceptions and was 10-for-24 for 88 yards, while the Knights were 4-for-17 on third down and also did not convert one until the third quarter.

UCF coach George O’Leary said the bad offense had a lot to do with solid defensive play by both teams.

“Both defenses played well. Both offenses would probably like to go back to the drawing board if you look at it,” O’Leary said with a laugh. “Give the defense of Mississippi State credit. They took away a lot of the things we do well.”

Croom said it was by design. State played the run first and forced Israel to beat them, something he couldn’t do. All of State’s points came off turnovers. In addition to the three interceptions, Israel and Smith mishandled a handoff in the fourth quarter.

“That was the only chance we had to negate Kevin’s burst into the hole was to play fast,” Croom said. “We kept the ball in front of us, and by doing that we had a chance.”

UCF took advantage of a short punt by McAdams and good field position to get a 45-yard field goal from Michael Torres early in the second quarter, while State turned a 40-yard interception return by Derek Pegues into a 22-yard field goal by Adam Carlson with 6:02 remaining. Neither team had a first down the rest of the half and they went into halftime tied 3-3.

The offensive nightmare continued into the second half. UCF drove 14 plays to MSU’s 15 on its first possession only to watch Torres miss a 32-yard field goal. After another State punt, UCF took 12 plays to march to State’s 21-yard line, but Torres missed another field goal from 37 yards with 12 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Torres had hit 19 of 21 field goal attempts coming into the game.

“Mike’s had such a good season. I’m disappointed he missed two. But I’m not going to give it a second thought,” O’Leary said when asked about kicking the field goals after Torres had barely pushed the first over the crossbar and missed his second attempt.

UCF fumbled and threw an interception on its next two possessions, and after Keith Fitzhugh’s interception with 5:47 to play the Bulldog offense finally got its act together.

Dixon rushed for five yards, then Carroll kept it twice on the option for a pair of 9-yard gains to move the ball to the UCF 36-yard line. Carroll completed two passes to get it to the 18 before Tony Burks took an end-around and sprinted around the left side to the 3. Burks was sprung by a crushing block from Co-Eric Riley and stepped out of bounds as he dove for the end zone.

Dixon gained two yards on the next play, then dove over the pile for the game’s first — and only — touchdown with 1:54 remaining.

“I wanted to (dive) the first time but I saw a backside hole,” said Dixon, who gained 40 of his 95 yards in the fourth quarter. “The next time I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it. I’m on ESPN. I want everybody to see it when they get home tonight.'”

MSU defense rattles Smith

MEMPHIS — Kevin Smith was supposed to spend Saturday afternoon chasing Barry Sanders. Mississippi State’s staunch run defense had him chasing his tail.

Smith ran for 119 yards and no touchdowns on 35 carries in Central Florida’s 10-3 loss to Mississippi State in the Autozone Liberty Bowl, leaving him 61 yards short of Sanders’ single-season NCAA rushing record. Smith finished the season with 2,567 yards. Sanders had 2,628 yards en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in 1988 while at Oklahoma State.

“I was getting the ball and trying to run where the holes were. The holes weren’t as big. I wasn’t expecting them to be big. They were faster than us on that side of the ball,” Smith said before adding, “As far as the record, stop talking about the record. I don’t want to talk about the record.”

Smith’s day was typical of nearly every offensive player on the field. MSU quarterback Wesley Carroll completed 8 of 18 passes for only 39 yards, while his UCF counterpart Kyle Israel was 10-of-24 for 88 yards with three interceptions.

Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon hit a milestone, but also had a lackluster day. The sophomore from Terry surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with a six-yard gain on the final play of the first quarter, becoming the third MSU player in four years to go over 1,000 yards in a season. Jerious Norwood did it in 2004 and 2005.

“It’s a great accomplishment. When I started the season one of my goals was to get 1,000 yards. I told the offensive linemen we need a 1,000-yard back,” Dixon said.

That was the highlight of Dixon’s day, though, until the fourth quarter. He had only 55 yards through 3 1/2 quarters, then scored the game’s only touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:54 remaining and broke off a 24-yard run on third-and-19 on State’s final drive to seal the win.

Bulldogs turn Memphis into Starkville North

The announced crowd for Saturday’s game was 63,816, and nearly three-quarters of them were wearing maroon and clanging cowbells.

Mississippi State sold its entire allotment of nearly 30,000 tickets for the game and most of the remaining available tickets seemed to be snapped up by MSU supporters. Two or three sections of the 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl featured mostly black-and-gold clad fans of Central Florida — many of them sporting Smith’s No. 24 jersey — but maroon was the dominant color everywhere else. State fans formed a ring stretching from the corner of the south end zone, back along Mississippi State’s sideline and then to about the 50-yard line behind UCF’s bench.

State fans rang cowbells from the national anthem to pregame introductions, and then throughout the game, giving the contest a feel of a home game at Davis Wade Stadium more than a supposedly neutral site bowl game.

“That felt better than any home game we had this year,” Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. “When I walked out there, I couldn’t believe it.”

Knights, Bulldogs both

at home in Liberty Bowl

Both Central Florida and Mississippi State wore their home uniforms for Saturday’s game. The Bulldogs wore maroon jerseys and pants, while UCF was in gold jerseys with white pants. Under NCAA rules, the home team normally wears colored jerseys and the road team dark. Game officials, however, said there was enough contrast between the two teams’ colors that the dueling home uniforms didn’t present a problem.

Pegues among SEC’s best kick returners

Smith wasn’t the only player on the field Saturday who was threatening to break records. Mississippi State kick returner Derek Pegues returned one kickoff for 14 yards, passing two players to move into seventh place on the Southeastern Conferece’s all-time list.

Pegues has averaged just under 600 kickoff return yards in three seasons at State, and could become the SEC’s all-time leader if he hits that mark next season. Kentucky’s Derek Abney had 2,315 yards from 2000-03. Mississippi State’s Tony James is fifth on the list, with 1,862 yards.

Pegues is also sixth on the SEC career list for total kick return yardage, which includes kickoffs and punts. He now has 2,410 yards since 2005. Abney is the career leader with 3,357 yards and James is third with 3,194. LSU’s Domanick Davis is second, with 3,294.

Pegues made a bigger impact Saturday in his other position, cornerback. He picked off two passes, broke up another on Central Florida’s last offensive play with less than two minutes to go, and finished with four tackles.