MEMPHIS, Tenn., - With eight offensive starters returning, Mississippi State's offense was expected to be solid this season.
But the Bulldogs went way beyond that adjective Thursday night. MSU broke a 33-year old school record by amassing 645 yards in a 59-14 victory over Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.
The Bulldogs led a balanced attack of 336 yards through the air and another 309 yards on the ground and scoring eight offensive touchdowns.
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"I'm very happy we came out with a good win," said MSU head coach Dan Mullen. "It's hard to win Division I football games. There were a lot of teaching moments in this game that we can instruct our players in, a lot of little mistakes that have to get fixed and things we have to improve to achieve any of the goals we want to attain this year. It's great to be able to teach those things off of a win."
Running back Vick Ballard ran for a career-high 166 yards, 164 of which came in the first half. The senior scored three touchdowns on only 10 carries including 46 and 66-yard scoring jaunts.
"Vick is a tough, physical football player," Mullen said. "He makes things happen. He's one of the cogs of the offense. He makes it go for us. It was great. He had a bunch of big runs for him and a bunch of big plays."
Quarterback Chris Relf completed 13-of-21 passing for 202 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his senior debut. He also carried 13 times for 54 yards.
"(The win) gives us confidence but we're not satisfied," Relf said. "We can get better."
Redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis was the leading receiver for the Bulldogs hauling in four catches for 113 yards and a touchdown as well as adding a 19-yard rushing score in his first career game.
Mississippi State put up its first points of the 2011 campaign on its second drive. The Bulldogs struck in only two plays from midfield when Relf hit a wide-open Chad Bumphis streaking down the middle of the field for a 44-yard touchdown. Derek DePasquale provided the extra point for the early advantage.
Later in the first quarter Ballard added another MSU touchdown to the board when he broke loose on a 46-yard scamper. DePasquale kicked the PAT to put the Bulldogs up 14-0.
State struck once again before the opening quarter ended. Bulldog defensive end Trevor Stigers forced Billy Foster to fumble at the UM 28-yard line and was recovered by freshman defensive tackle P.J. Jones, who was playing in his first collegiate series.
Mississippi State's offense was unable to cash in the turnover into a touchdown but DePasquale bailed them out with a 28-yard field goal with 1:18 remaining in the first quarter.
The scoring did not stop for MSU as the second quarter started. The Bulldogs carried over a five-play, 59-yard drive in the second and Relf once again went through the air to find Arceto Clark on a 35-yard scoring strike. DePasquale booted the point after to go up 24-0 with 13:59 to play before half.
Just before halftime State tried a little trickery but it backfired into the Tigers first points of the evening. Mullen called for a fake punt but Baker Swedenburg's pass was completed to LaDarius Perkins for a 4-yard loss giving Memphis the football at the MSU 30-yard line.
"I'm going to get after whoever coaches those darn special teams I can tell you that much," Mullen joked.
The Tigers cashed in three plays later as Foster broke loose on a 21-yard score down the right sideline. Paulo Henriques kicked the extra point to pull Memphis within 24-7 with 3:19 left in the first half.
But the Bulldogs would not go into the locker room quietly despite Lewis stepping out of bounds at the 2-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Mississippi State scored their fourth touchdown of the half five plays later when Ballard tore off a 66-yard touchdown run. DePasquale added the PAT to go up 31-7 with 1:51 left before halftime.
The Bulldogs had one more opportunity to score in the half following a Nickoe Whitley interception but DePasquale's 47-yard field goal sailed wide left as time expired.
Memphis came out in the second half moving down the field setting up a 50-yard field goal attempt by Henriques but the kick was wide right.
The Bulldogs got back into the scoring column on their second drive of the third quarter. Following a 17-yard punt return by Lewis to the UM 28-yard line MSU went to work. Ballard capped off the six-play drive with a 1-yard dive over the top for his third touchdown of the night to go up 38-7 following Depasquale's point after.
The Bulldogs capitalized on yet another turnover to close out the third quarter. Defensive end Shane McCardell recovered a fumbled snap at the UM 29-yard line. Three plays later Lewis scored from 19-yards out on a jet sweep to the right. Brian Egan booted the extra point on the final play of the third quarter to go up 45-7.
Memphis however would also take advantage of a Bulldog miscue early on in the fourth quarter. Lewis muffed a punt that was recovered by the Tigers Dasmine Cathey at the MSU 32-yard line.
Memphis found their way into the end zone from there six plays later. Taylor Reed connected with Marcus Rucker on an 11-yard touchdown. Henriques' PAT pulled the Tigers within 45-14 with 11:40 to play.
It didn't take Mississippi State long to respond. On the second play of the next drive, backup quarterback Tyler Russell hit Lewis on an 80-yard touchdown pass. Egan again came on for the extra point to extend the Bulldogs advantage to 52-14.
For the final score of the evening Russell orchestrated a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a 26-yard touchdown run by Russell facing 4th-and-10, Egan's PAT accounted for the final points of the game with 2:41 remaining.
Memphis finished the game with 338 yards - 174 passing and 164 rushing.
"They got on top of us early," said Memphis head coach Larry Porter "We couldn't respond. I felt that we gave them too much, too early. We never got in sync, and penalties were certainly a factor. We put our defense in some bad situations, and we just couldn't respond. I am proud of my team. I thought they fought to the bitter end. Obviously, we can't sustain losing like we just did. But I do see a bright future ahead."
Reed, a true freshman, completed 23-of-35 passing for 149 yards, one touchdown and one interception after taking over for starter Andy Summerlin.
True freshman Artaves Gibson paced the Tigers ground game with 85 yards on 17 carries while Rucker was the leading receiver with seven catches for 73 yards and a score.
Mississippi State's defense was led by sophomore linebacker Deontae Skinner with seven tackles (four solo, three assists) and one tackle for loss. Marvin Bure, Matthew Wells, Johnthan Banks and Ferlando Bohanna each had five stops.
"It's good to get those guys on the field and get them broken in," Mullen said. "We've got to continue to accelerate all those young defensive players' learning because it's going to be a big time game here in 10 days.
Stigers and Josh Boyd each had a sack for the Bulldogs.
Memphis was led defensively by Akeem Davis and Terrence Thomas with seven tackles apiece while Mitch Huelsing, Kenyata Johnson, Cannon Smith and Zach Gholson all made five stops.
The Bulldogs now have 14 days to prepare to travel to Auburn to take on the defending national champions next Saturday and then take on LSU at home five days later.
"We've got a tough road ahead of us," Mullen said. "If we can find a way to win these next two games, we're in a great position to win the SEC West Championship. The next 15 days will really determine how great of a season we're going to have."