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Mississippi State holds off Vanderbilt to stop losing streak

STARKVILLE (AP) — First-year Mississippi State coach Mike Leach says he tried to inspire his team this week by showing them footage of Hall-of-Fame NFL safety Ed Reed.

On some level it must’ve worked, especially on defense.

While quarterback Will Rogers threw for only 226 yards and a touchdown, and the Air Raid offense struggled again, the Mississippi State defense combined for five turnovers and the team narrowly eked out a 24-17 victory over visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday.

“I’m going to give Ed Reed a game ball. I don’t know where he is, but I’ll figure that out,” Leach said. “We need more guys who can play at the intensity and work level of guys like Ed Reed, Jerry Rice. I don’t know that we can ever match their work level, but it’s a learned skill and it’s something we need to work on.”

Mississippi State (2-4) finally won its first home game under Leach after losing their first two attempts to Arkansas and Texas A&M last month.

Vanderbilt (0-5) had 478 yards of total offense, more than twice Mississippi State’s total, but ultimately couldn’t overcome its turnover woes. Due to a crippling mix of COVID-19 infections, injuries and suspensions, the Commodores dressed only 58 scholarship players for the game. The SEC minimum is 53.

“We had a great game plan,” linebacker Tyrus Wheat said. “Every day we practice running to the ball, and that’s what got it done. We practice stripping the ball too.”

The Bulldogs led 17-0 at the half, but Ken Seals connected with Chris Piece for a two-yard score late in the third quarter to give the Commodores their first touchdown against Mississippi State since Oct. 11, 2008. Then Keyon Henry-Brooks found a seam in the middle of the field and broke a 27-yard touchdown run on the next drive, and just like that, Vanderbilt was knocking on the door.

But the Commodores’ next two drives? An interception and a fumble, both deep in Mississippi State territory. A few plays later Jo’quavious Marks punched the last of those turnovers in for another Bulldog touchdown and a 24-14 lead with 2:43 remaining, effectively ending the threat and the game.

Pierson Cooke kicked a 41-yard field goal with 38 seconds left to pull Vanderbilt back within a touchdown, but Mississippi State recovered the ensuing onsides kick and ran out the clock.

“Ken’s got to take care of the ball, bottom line,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “He had a great night, and like, I get that everyone’s into stats, but I’m into wins, ok? I got a young quarterback. He’s going to continue to get better. The thing he’s got to do is protect this team. When you lead this team, you have to protect this team, and he understands that. I love him. He’s a competitor. He’s definitely the quarterback of the future. But the biggest thing you’ve got to do, especially on the road, is protect this team.”

Rogers, a true freshman, was 35-of-46 in his first career start for the Bulldogs, replacing senior Stanford transfer K.J. Costello at quarterback. Malik Heath had nine catches and 79 receiving yards to lead the team.

Rogers’ 35 completions are the fifth-most in a game in Mississippi State history. Four of MSU’s top five single-game completion marks have come in 2020.

“He stayed relatively composed, and he rallied at the end, but I thought we left a lot of plays on the table form the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the fourth quarter,” Leach said. “We need to get better about not being part-time spectators and part-time participants in the game.”

For Vanderbilt, Cam Johnson had a game-high 114 receiving yards on 10 catches. Pierce and Henry-Brooks combined for another 173 receiving yards, and Henry-Brooks rushed for 115 more.

“You can’t go on the road and turn the ball over — that’s first and foremost,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “You can’t go on the road and turn the ball over. They were 4-for-4 in the red zone and we were 1-for-2. When you look at what happens in those situations, you have to reverse the trend.”