By JOEL COLEMAN
All Mississippi State wide receiver Donald Gray could do was grin. Just moments before, Mississippi State had polished off a 56-41 win over Samford on homecoming at Davis Wade Stadium.
In the process, MSU set a school record for total offensive yards in a single game with 669. That fact had Gray brimming with pride immediately after the contest.
“It feels great to be a part of that,” Gray said. “I can’t stop smiling. I’m just happy and glad we were able to do something like that.”
It was a record-setting day all around for the Bulldogs from Starkville. Many of them were set by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. With 417 passing yards and 119 rushing yards, Fitzgerald joined Southeastern Conference legends Johnny Manziel and Archie Manning as the only signal callers in the history of the Southeastern Conference to pass for more than 400 yards and rush for more than 100 in a single game. Fitzgerald also tied former MSU quarterback Dak Prescott by accounting for seven total touchdowns in one game.
“I had guys go make plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Guys were open and I was able to put the ball where it needed to be and they finished it off. I had a lot of time to throw the ball and guys were blocking their butts off. Guys were getting open and I was just able to find a way to get it to them and they did the rest.”
Gray and Fred Ross were the primary beneficiaries of Fitzgerald’s success. Gray set a career high with 207 receiving yards and tied Chad Bumphis and Sammy Milner for the MSU school record with three touchdown catches in a single game.
“It felt good,” Gray said. “I just did my job and my assignment and did it the best I could. That’s how we practice all week.
“It feels awesome. I just have to keep working. I have waited for this for a long time.”
Ross scored a touchdown and had 107 yards receiving. It was Ross’ 10th career game with more than 100 yards receiving, which is also an MSU record.
While the offensive records piled up, Saturday wasn’t a banner day for the MSU defense. Samford piled up 627 yards of total offense. That’s the most State has given up in a single game since Texas A&M accumulated 693 yards against MSU in 2012.
“I’m disappointed in certain things on the defense that we’ve got to get cleaned up,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “We had way too many missed tackles and that was really disappointing, but we knew they were a good offense, a super high-tempo offense that’s going to throw the ball all over the place. We’ve got to clean up some of our tackling and we’ve got to be able to get off the field on third down defensively.”
State’s offense more than made up for the defensive shortcomings. MSU got things rolling less than two minutes into the game when Fitzgerald hit Malik Dear for a 25-yard touchdown pass and an early 7-0 lead. MSU added two more touchdowns before the first quarter was over, one on a 71-yard reception from Gray and another on a one-yard run from Fitzgerald.
Samford kept pace throughout the opening period. Samford’s Devlin Hodges threw a 30-yard touchdown pass and Reece Everett drilled both a 32 and 33-yard field goal to keep MSU up just 21-13 after the first quarter.
The two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. Hodges threw his second scoring pass to cut MSU’s lead to 21-20, but State answered just seconds later on Fitzgerald’s 74-yard strike to Gray.
The offenses kept battling in the second half. Fitzgerald gave MSU a 35-20 lead with a touchdown pass to Ross midway through the third quarter. Then, after Hodges threw his third touchdown pass of the game a moment later, State took its biggest lead of the afternoon with two more third-quarter scores.
The first came on a 51-yard pass from Fitzgerald to Gray, then later in the period, linebacker DeAndre Ward returned an interception 35 yards for a score. Suddenly, MSU was pulling away with a 49-26 lead.
Samford bounced back though. First, the Bulldogs from Birmingham got a seven-yard touchdown pass from Hodges, then early in the fourth quarter, Roland Adams pushed one across the goal line from two yards out to make it a one-score game at 49-41.
That’s as close as Samford could get though. MSU put a lid on the game with a one-yard touchdown run from Fitzgerald with 5:14 left.
The victory snapped MSU’s three-game losing streak. Though several offensive records were set in the process, Ward said getting the win was easily the most important thing of all for the Bulldogs.
“It was a great job by the team,” Ward said. “We have been on the short side with a lot of great teams. It was just great to be on the other side and win this one.”