Bulldogs hang on to win St. Petersburg Bowl

Published 5:48 pm Monday, December 26, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Mississippi State’s sideline erupted in celebration, relieved to escape with a victory to end a challenging season.

Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in another strong performance by the dual-threat quarterback; however, the heavily favored Bulldogs had to block a field goal in the closing seconds to hold off Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Monday.

“Great game. Not exactly how we drew it up,” coach Dan Mullen said after defensive tackle Nelson Adams got a hand on Nick Dowd’s potential game-winning kick that would have helped Miami finish a stunning turnaround from an 0-6 start to the season to a winning record.

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Instead, both the Bulldogs (6-7) and the RedHawks (6-7), who won six straight games to become bowl eligible, finished with losing marks.

Four of Mississippi State’s seven losses were by seven points or less. Three of them essentially came down to the final play — an overtime loss to BYU, a home loss to South Alabama on a missed field goal in the final seconds, and a road loss at Kentucky on a field goal as time expired.

“You know what, it’s been an interesting year. We’ve battled. Throughout the year we’ve lost some tough games on the final play of the game,” Mullen said. “I told the guys in the locker room afterward, we’re here because we didn’t give up. We found a way to go make that final play. Even though we missed a lot of opportunities, we made the final play when it mattered.”

Fitzgerald, who led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, scored on runs of 2 and 44 yards on the way to his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. The redshirt sophomore also completed 13 of 26 passes for 126 yards.

Gus Ragland threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns for Miami. He also threw his first interception of the season early in the fourth quarter, and Mississippi State turned the mistake into a 36-yard field goal that put it ahead with 12:03 remaining.

“We were one play ahead of them for most of the game, if not more than one, but they were one play ahead of us at the end,” Miami coach Chuck Martin said. “We had opportunities. When you look at it, it didn’t need to come down to that last kick, but it did. They made one more play than us. Tough way to end. That’s sports, and that’s competition.”

The RedHawks drove the ball deep into Bulldogs territory on their next two possessions, turning the ball over on downs at the Mississippi State 32 midway through the fourth quarter and reaching the 17 before Dowd had his kick blocked with 5 seconds left.

James Gardner and Ryan Smith caught TD passes for Miami, which also had an extra point blocked in the first half.

“We had noticed on film that the kicker kind of did line drives. All that was going through my head was get your hands up as quick as you can,” Adams said. “It’s been a tough year for us. The only thing going through my mind was make a play, make something happen, and that’s what I did.”

While there’s a tendency to minimize the importance of games played before New Year’s weekend, Mississippi State and Miami both felt fortunate to be in St. Petersburg for Christmas. The Bulldogs had a losing record for the first time since 2009 — Mullen’s first season in Starkville — but qualified for a postseason berth because of the program’s NCAA Academic Progress Rate.

Miami’s rebound from a poor start was one of the feel-good stories of the year. Finishing in a bowl game against an SEC opponent attracted additional national attention for the RedHawks and also figures to help in recruiting.

Miami became the first team in NCAA history to start 0-6 and finish the regular season 6-6. The senior class that entered school in 2013 had a 5-37 record before the RedHawks began their six-game winning streak in mid-October.

“Like I told the guys a couple of weeks ago, if we invited Mississippi State down to spring practice to scrimmage us for 60 minutes, I don’t think they’d come. So a pretty good opportunity for Miami football to play Mississippi State and go against some guys that don’t look like the guys we normally go against,” Martin said. “I thought our kids definitely took advantage of that and made the most of today.”