By JOEL COLEMAN
For a week, Mississippi State sat on a season-opening loss to South Alabama. For seven long days, the frustration mounted. Then, on Saturday night, it all boiled over.
MSU put forth a dominating effort in its Southeastern Conference opener as the Bulldogs topped South Carolina 27-14 at Davis Wade Stadium.
Offensively and defensively, the Bulldogs smothered the Gamecocks and relieved the angst felt after falling in the season’s first week to the Jaguars. MSU built a 24-0 lead by halftime and never looked back.
“I like the effort our guys came out and played with, especially in that first half,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “That looked like Mississippi State football and what we expect, with the intensity and strain our guys played with.”
Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0) seemed to answer some of its biggest lingering questions in toppling South Carolina (1-1, 1-1). For the second straight week, Nick Fitzgerald got the start at quarterback for the Bulldogs. Unlike against South Alabama in the season’s first game, Fitzgerald found immediate success and played all game.
The sophomore signal caller orchestrated a seven play, 55-yard touchdown drive on MSU’s first offensive possession. Fitzgerald hit Fred Ross on a 6-yard scoring toss for an early 7-0 lead.
Fitzgerald’s big first half was just starting. Before the first two quarters were over, Fitzgerald had run for 134 yards and passed for 118 with a pair of touchdown throws.
He finished with 195 yards rushing and 178 yards passing. Fitzgerald’s rushing yardage total was the highest single-game total for any quarterback in the Mullen era at MSU.
“I just ran the ball and had great blocking,” Fitzgerald said. “People were throwing their bodies out there and I was following them.”
The MSU defense had perhaps an even better night than Fitzgerald. The Bulldogs set the tone just after the opening kickoff. With South Carolina starting at its own 25 following a touchback, State forced a quick three-and-out. Johnathan Calvin put the exclamation point on the series with a third-down sack of South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth.
The Bulldog defense kept the pressure on the Gamecocks throughout the first half. After two quarters of play, South Carolina had totaled just 90 yards of total offense and averaged less than three yards per play.
“First half, we were flying around, guys were having fun and we had juice on defense,” MSU defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson said. “It was just a different feeling (than last week).”
With Fitzgerald rolling and the defense dominating, MSU was able to take complete control. State carried its 7-0 lead into the second quarter and went on to pull away.
MSU took a 14-0 advantage early in the second period. Ross, who caught the ball in the end zone for State’s first score, took a pitch from Fitzgerald and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Donald Gray to double MSU’s edge.
“We’d been working on that play all week in practice and I had told Donald to just stay ready,” Ross said. “The look came and the safety stayed flat and I just let it ride and Donald was there to save me.”
Then, with 3:21 left before halftime, the Bulldogs struck again. From three yards out, Fitzgerald found Jordan Thomas for Thomas’ first career touchdown reception.
The Bulldogs would extend their lead with a 27-yard field goal from Westin Graves as time expired in the second quarter.
South Carolina was unable to build much momentum, but did creep closer in the second half following a 63-minute lightning delay. The Gamecocks inserted Brandon McIlwain at quarterback in the third quarter and he gave his team a spark.
“We weren’t doing anything in the first half so we needed a change up,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said.
With 5 seconds left in the third quarter, McIlwain got South Carolina on the scoreboard with an 18 yard touchdown pass to A.J. Turner.
After Graves hit his second field goal of the night, a 28-yarder, early in the fourth quarter to stretch MSU’s lead to 27-7, McIlwain capped the night’s scoring with a four-yard touchdown toss to K.C. Crosby with 2:37 to play.
South Carolina’s improved second half play did little to dampen MSU’s spirits on this night though. One week removed from heartache, MSU appears to have given itself a jolt as it heads into next week’s 6 p.m. game at LSU.
“This feels great,” Fitzgerald said. “We can finally move past last week with a win over a big SEC opponent. We can start gearing up for next week and another big one.”