By JOEL COLEMAN
Mississippi State senior linebacker Richie Brown has been a part of some of the biggest wins the MSU football program has ever experienced. Nothing compared to Saturday though.
Facing the No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies, Mississippi State shocked the college football world with a 35-28 upset win at Davis Wade Stadium. Brown said the win set off a victory celebration like none he has been a part of before.
“It was one of the best (locker room environments) I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “This is up there with beating Auburn and Texas A&M the year we went to No. 1 (in 2014). Honestly, this is better because this team is so hungry for a win that we’re not taking it for granted. I think the guys are more excited about this than when we were ranked at No. 1.”
For four quarters on Saturday, the Bulldogs played a lot like the team from two years ago that shot to the top of national polls. Once again, State had a quarterback taking control of a game. Instead of Dak Prescott though, this was Nick Fitzgerald’s time to assert himself against one of the country’s best squads. Fitzgerald passed for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He rushed for 182 yards and two more scores.
Like Josh Robinson two seasons ago, Aeris Williams carried the Bulldogs on the ground. Williams became the first MSU running back since Robinson to eclipse the 100-yard mark in a game. Williams rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown.
All told, State’s offense put up 574 total yards, 365 of which came on the ground to account for MSU’s most rushing yards in a game since 2010. That dominating running game negated one of the Southeastern Conference’s best pass rushing teams.
“Coming into the game, we knew we had to be able to run the football,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “They have such skill and pass rush ability off the edge. We didn’t want this to be a passing game shootout.”
State established its ground game early. On its very first play from scrimmage, Fitzgerald busted loose for a 74-yard touchdown run. MSU led for the rest of the day.
Williams added his scoring run later in the period to make it 14-0. After Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight cut State’s lead in half with a 19-yard touchdown scamper late in the first quarter, the Bulldogs answered with a pair of Fitzgerald-to-Fred Ross touchdown passes in the second quarter. Fitzgerald found Ross on a 60-yard strike for a 21-7 lead, then made it 28-7 with a seven-yard scoring toss.
While it looked as though MSU might run away with the game, Christian Kirk gave the Aggies a shot in the arm to spark a comeback. with under a minute left in the first half, Kirk returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, State’s advantage was trimmed to 28-14 as the teams went to their locker rooms at halftime.
Mullen said there was no panic in his Bulldogs though.
“We made a lot of plays in that first half and knew we were going to have to make a lot more in the second half if we wanted to win the game,” Mullen said. “We didn’t show up to play 30 minutes of football. We knew we were going to have to play for 60 minutes.”
Following a scoreless third quarter, Texas A&M got back to within a score early in the fourth. Again, Kirk found pay dirt when he caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from backup Aggies quarterback Jake Hubenak, who was in the game after an injury to Knight.
MSU immediately found an answer to all but clinch the game. On their ensuing drive, the Bulldogs drove 73 yards on 14 plays and ate up over 7 minutes of clock. Fitzgerald crossed the goal line to cap the drive as he carried defenders into the end zone on a bruising 4-yard run.
“My team worked so hard for me all day,” Fitzgerald said. “There was no way I wasn’t going to score that for them.”
The Aggies scored their final points with 1:33 to go when Hubenak hit Josh Reynolds from four yards out. Texas A&M got the football back with a chance for a game-tying drive with just 27 seconds left, but MSU safety Mark McLaurin ended the Aggies’ hopes with an interception two plays into the drive.
“I knew I had to make that play,” McLaurin said of his pick. ‘I’ll cherish that moment for the rest of my life.”
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin made no excuses for the loss. He simply tipped his visor to MSU.
“We got whipped,” Sumlin said. “It just came down to Mississippi State did a lot better job at running the ball. We couldn’t stop the run and we couldn’t run.”
Mullen, meanwhile, was overjoyed with his team’s performance. With a win like Saturday’s, all the Bulldogs were partying like it was 2014 all over again.
“It was a great win for us,” Mullen said. “There is going to be a big celebration at the Mullen house (Saturday night). It means a lot to me for these kids.
“For them to continue to work, believe and fight, I couldn’t be prouder of our players.”