Bowl win marks end of era for MSU

Published 11:50 pm Friday, January 1, 2016

Mississippi State’s 2015 season didn’t have the astronomical highs of 2014, when the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the country for a month and flirted with a Southeastern Conference championship. It ended not by hoisting a national championship trophy in a shower of confetti, but by lifting the modest Belk Bowl trophy in a downpour of rain in Charlotte.

All of that was just fine with coach Dan Mullen. What this year’s team accomplished was almost as important as winning it all.

By beating North Carolina State 51-28 in the Belk Bowl, Mississippi State finished 9-4 for the first back-to-back nine-win seasons in the program’s 114-year history. That sort of consistency, Mullen said, is what will eventually change a long culture of losing in Starkville and turn MSU into a perennial contender.

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“I am really proud of our guys. I am really proud of this team. I know everybody picked us to finish dead last in the SEC this year. They don’t listen to that. We came back,” Mullen said in his postgame news conference. “In 114 years of Mississippi State football, only six teams have won nine games. They’re one of those six. And to do it up until two years ago, there has only been four. To do it with this group, this senior class. To do it in consecutive years is really special. I feel like they have really changed what people think Mississippi State football is all about.”

The biggest part of the turnaround, senior quarterback Dak Prescott, will not be around to see the next phase of the program’s evolution.

Prescott finished his stellar career by throwing for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the bowl game. He became just the fourth player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to throw for 9,000 yards and rush for 2,500, and set nearly every school passing record.

Prescott will head off to the NFL while understudy Nick Fitzgerald seems likely to succeed him. Fitzgerald was 11-of-14 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions in eight games this season. He will be a redshirt sophomore in 2016.

“I mean, I’ve got high expectations for myself so I’m not going to say it’s something that I never thought of or wanted to do or that I didn’t think that could happen,” Prescott said of his career achievements. “I mean obviously I did, but for it all to become true, for it to be so surreal is special and very humbling.”

Mississippi State will lose 14 seniors off of this year’s roster, including kicker and former Warren Central star Devon Bell, defensive backs Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun, and defensive lineman Ryan Brown.

Junior wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson posted on his Instagram account on Friday that he intends to enter the NFL draft.

Calhoun and Brown were both three-year starters, and Redmond emerged as a key cog in the secondary. Losing them will hurt, but Mullen said he saw a glimpse of the future in the game’s final moments.

After MSU took a 51-21 lead on a 33-yard TD run by Aeris Williams with 5:30 left in the game, North Carolina State embarked on a 17-play drive. The Wolfpack wound up with a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line and didn’t score until Jaylen Samuels got in on a 1-yard run on fourth down.

Although the Bulldogs gave up the touchdown, seeing his second- and third-stringers fight to extend the sequence to fourth down put a smile on Mullen’s face.

“We gave up a couple of big plays, but I think if you want to see the character of the two programs, to me that battle right there at the end down on the goal line. A lot of younger guys are in the game and both sides are battling until the final whistle,” Mullen said.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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