Bulldogs pull off Bowl victory late
Published 12:40 am Sunday, December 30, 2007
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mississippi State’s win in the Liberty Bowl was the kind of game coach Sylvester Croom’s mentor would have loved.
Playing at the site of the Paul ‘‘Bear’’ Bryant’s final game 25 years ago, the Bulldogs used power running and a dominant defense to beat Central Florida 10-3 on Saturday and earn a milestone win for the once dormant program.
‘‘I’ve said quite often we don’t need style points,’’ said Croom, the Southeastern Conference coach of the year who played and coached under Bryant at Alabama for 11 seasons. ‘‘We just find a way to win.’’
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Anthony Dixon powered in from the 1 for the winning touchdown with 1:54 to go and most valuable player Derek Pegues picked off two passes in a game featuring anemic offenses and 17 punts.
The Bulldogs (8-5) kept the Knights (10-4) out of the end zone and Kevin Smith from breaking the single-season rushing record. The junior finished with 119 yards, leaving him 61 shy of Barry Sanders’ mark of 2,628 yards set for Oklahoma State in 1988.
‘‘I was trying to find the holes, but they were playing faster than us,’’ said Smith, who has already said he will return for his senior season.
It was the lowest scoring Liberty Bowl since Penn State beat Tulane 9-6 in 1979, but the pro-Mississippi State record crowd of 63,816 was rewarded for its patience as Dixon and the Bulldogs offense came alive late in the fourth quarter.
Croom, in his fourth season with Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs have played this way all year, resurrecting a program that hadn’t won more than three games in six seasons.
As the Bulldogs did in big wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama this season, they concentrated on the running game — both on offense and defense. Smith found the going difficult in the second half and finished with an average of 3.4 yards per carry after rushing for 188.3 yards per game during the regular season.
‘‘One thing about Mississippi State football is we pride ourselves in stopping the run, and I feel like we went out and showed the world how physical and how tough the defense is,’’ defensive end Titus Brown said.
Dixon finished with 86 yards and became the seventh Bulldogs runner to go over 1,000 yards (1,066). But like the rest of the Bulldogs, he was ineffective much of the game.
The teams were tied 3-3 at halftime, mostly due to conservative play-calling and poor play from the quarterbacks. Passes were rarely aimed more than 5 yards downfield, and when they were thrown deep they were dropped or picked off.
Neither team converted a third down in the first half (0 for 16) as Mississippi State was held to 84 total yards and Central Florida to 79.
Israel had 12 yards passing and two interceptions by halftime and Mississippi State’s Wes Carroll had 15 yards and an interception. UCF also didn’t get much help from kicker Michael Torres, who gave the Knights a 3-0 lead in the second quarter with a 45-yard field goal, but missed from 32 and 37 in the second half.
‘‘I think those missed field goals were big momentum breakers,’’ Central Florida coach George O’Leary said. ‘‘Give Mississippi State credit. They fought hard and didn’t turn the ball over. That usually means you’re going to come up with a close win like that.’’
Mississippi State finished with 199 total yards and Blake McAdams tied the Liberty Bowl record with 11 punts. But the Bulldogs came up with just enough big plays after Keith Fitzhugh picked off Israel’s pass at the Mississippi State 41 with 5:47 left.
Carroll, pulled the series before, returned and responded with two rushes for 17 yards and two completions for 15 yards. All went for first downs and spurred a 10-play, 59-yard drive that consumed 3:53 and finally led to a touchdown.
Pegues, fittingly, made the final key defensive play, knocking down a fourth-down pass on UCF’s final drive. The Bulldogs held the Knights to 219 yards and forced four turnovers.
The junior safety gave Mississippi State two excellent opportunities with interceptions in the first 30 minutes, returning the ball to Central Florida’s 6 and 38. The safety’s first pick set up a 22-yard field goal by Adam Carlson in the second quarter.
‘‘He just threw it right to me both times, and I was lucky to catch the ball,’’ Pegues said. ‘‘It goes along with the defensive line and the whole defense. They were able to get pressure and the coaches put me in the right position to make the play.’’
As for Croom, the season began with talk about the SEC’s first black head football coach needing a winning season to save his job. It ended with the Bulldogs’ first bowl victory since the 2000 Independence Bowl and no more questions about job security.