Three Devon Bell field goals and a strong defensive performance set the pace for 23rd ranked Mississippi State as they survived another sloppy performance and beat South Alabama, 30-10 to move to 4-0.
Tyler Russell had his biggest struggle of the year passing for 171 on 13-27 and one interception. The interception came on his 137th pass of the season and tied him with former Bulldog Wesley Carroll for the most consecutive passes without an interception in school history.
The offense came out and immediately went for down field passes. The power of the running game was not utilized often in the first quarter and it seemed to hurt MSU's chances of getting off the ground offensively.
"We weren't throwing the ball well," Coach Dan Mullen said. "It was just sloppy. Bad play calls".
South Alabama came out early and applied pressure to Russell and made things difficult for the MSU offense.
Both teams traded punts the entire first quarter with a total of five first downs combined by the two teams. But the Jaguars finally had the ball moving starting the second quarter and drove 50 yards in nine plays before stalling. Their field goal try of 47 yards, however, was no good and MSU would take over and finally take advantage.
The drive started with a five yard rush from Perkins to their own 35. Chad Bumphis then hauled in a 21 yard pass from Russell into Jaguar territory. That's when Perkins burst through the gap for a 44 yard touchdown run. The touchdown was his fifth of the season tying the amount of trips he had to the endzone in his previous two years combined.
After MSU forced another punt, they began to move the ball again. This time the drive was more methodical as the Bulldogs manufactured their longest drive of the year taking it 80 yards on nine plays. Josh Robinson started the drive off nicely with three consecutive carries marching 29 yards. Brandon Heavens followed that up with a 22 yard reception. A couple of plays later, Chris Smith joined the fold with a 21 yard reception of his own. Enter backup qb Dak Prescott, who has been labeled the Tim Tebow to Russell's Chris Leak. Prescott went seven yards in two carries and put it into the endzone for a 14-0 lead with over five and a half minutes remaining in the half.
The Bulldogs got the ball right back on a punt and Johnthan Banks gave them great field position at the USA 29. But the drive went nowhere and Bell was called on to kick the field goal. After much criticism from the MSU fanbase over the freshman's performance, he hit his second of the season from 42 yards out and State held a 17-0 advantage with three and a half minutes left in the first half.
The Bulldogs got it right back after a defensive stop and was in business offensively before Russell threw the ball into the hands of the Jaguar defender for his first interception of the season.
Three plays into the South Alabama drive, though, was a big play returned by the MSU defense. Junior Safety, Nickoe Whitley, intercepted the pass at his own eight yard line and took it 66 yards to the USA 26 with 30 seconds left. The drive manufactured nothing and Bell was brought in for the second time of the night and he split the uprights once again from 42 yards out and a 20-0 MSU halftime lead.
It wasn't what the Bulldogs wanted out of the first half and Mullen was not happy.
"When you get these games, you want to come out and play sharp and play crisp, and we didn’t do that in the first-half at all," Mullen said. "We went backwards a lot."
USA began the second half by driving the ball better than they had the entire first half. A total of 13 plays and 71 yards to be exact taking 5:12 off of the clock. The Bulldog defense did get a stop inside the five yard line to force a 22 yard field goal to put the Jags on the board at 20-3.
The coaches frustration was pouring into the players as Jameon Lewis immediately brought the ensuing kickoff out of the endzone and to midfield. The home team would drive 50 yards in just five plays thanks to a career long, 46 yard reception by Arceto Clark to the four yard line. The drive was capped by a Russell one yard touchdown run. They now lead the ball game 27-3 with 9:48 remaining in the third.
State would get the ball back on another punt and drive the ball into the fourth quarter with a long 12 play 44 yard drive that lasted nearly six minutes but gave them just three points as Bell tacked on his third field goal of the night, this one for 31 yards, and State had their last points of the night at 30-3.
The following USA drive, Banks made what might be the play of the year by leaping and reaching over the receiver, pulling down the ball, and taking it 47 yards. The interception was the 15th of Banks' career putting him one away from tying the all-time record set by Walt Harris. He also broke Derek Peagues' record for most interception return yardage with 274. That yardage is tops in the country by active players.
Johnthan Banks pick against South Alabama (via sfslickdawg)
"That’s what I do. I am not trying to be cocky, but that is what Coach Mullen, Coach Smith and Coach Wilson expect me to do," Banks said. "I have to make plays, and the other team ought to know that if you throw it around me five or six times, I am going to get one of them."
USA would get a garbage touchdown with a 12 play 78 yard touchdown coming on an 18 yard page. That would provide the final score of 30-10 with MSU going to 4-0 on the season for the first time since 1999.
The Bulldogs had a sloppy contest against a lesser team for the second consecutive week but there were some strong points. Players all over the roster got in the game early and often, defense made some more big plays, and the special teams took a definitive step up into the right direction.
State takes a much needed week off as they now get ready for the stretch run with seven out of the remaining eight games coming against SEC competition.
MSU has won 14 consecutive non-conference game for only the second time ever. They are four wins shy of tying the all-time record of 18 set by the 1941-47.
The 144 points scored in the first four games, is the most since State had 159 in 1944 and the 53 points surrendered are the least amount of points through the first four games since giving up just 28 in 1999.
State leads the nation in turnover differential at plus 13 now. Dan Mullen improved to 20-1 when winning the battle of the turnovers.