For Mississippi State, Tuesday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl had a complete 180-degree different feel than New Year's Day a year ago when the Bulldogs got manhandled at times against Northwestern. MSU was ready. The Bulldogs had momentum with two straight wins to end the year and they had a lot to play for with many players returning next season.
What transpired was the culmination of all those things and the Bulldogs backed it up on the field with 44 unanswered points and a 44-7 blowout over the C-USA champs, Rice. The Bulldogs played near perfect on both sides of the ball and that lead to the rout and third bowl win in the last four years.
Now let's get to my three keys to victory and see how the Bulldogs did on those. The keys were: Let Prescott control the game, force the owls to beat you through the air and make plays in special teams.
Let Prescott control the game: I don't think anyone could control the game better than Dak Prescott did on Tuesday afternoon. The sophomore was making his first start since the Texas A&M game nearly two months prior and he looked as comfortable and healthy as he ever has been.
Against a defense that was already heavily outmatched, Prescott strengthened his case for some serious recognition next season with a career-best performance. The sophomore was 17-28 passing for 283 yards and three touchdowns while leading the team in rushing with 14 carries, 78 yards and two more touchdowns.
With the rushing threat that Prescott has possessed all season, he's evolved as a passer even further and found his favorite target in Jameon Lewis who produced the single greatest receiving day in school history. The junior receiver excited fans even further with his nine-catch, 220-yard performance and it was too much to overcome.
Force the Owls to beat you through the air : It would turn out to be an even bigger performance by the defense than offense on Tuesday as MSU had one of the more impressive games all season long. With Rice possessing the country's 16th best rushing attack, the Bulldogs knew that they had their hands full. What they would do was use their size and speed to their advantage and force Rice to try to make plays down field. After a couple of possessions where the Owls moved the ball and even scored a touchdown, it was all Bulldogs.
Rice managed to get the Bulldogs early with 13 carries and 39 yards while getting in the endzone for their only score. After that, the Bulldogs were simply stunning. MSU gave up just 22 yards on 21 carries the rest of the way to allow just 61 yards in the game, an average of just 1.9 yards per rush. The problem for Rice was that they couldn't pass the ball on the Bulldogs either. The Owls put just 84 yards in the air on 8-16 passing. It was the best defensive performance in a very long time.
Make plays in special teams: I had a feeling that this would be an important part of the ballgame and turns out I was wrong (I usually am). The Bulldogs didn't really make any plays in the special teams and actually had an extra point blocked.
The one bright spot in the special teams this season has been the kickoff and punt coverage and State did a great job in this area again yesterday. I think the difference in the Bulldogs being a good team in a great team next season lies in them staying healthy, but they also have to make some big strides in their special teams' unit.
I had a feeling that the Bulldogs were simply bigger and better than the Owls and they proved it to be much truer than a lot of us thought. My 34-17 prediction wasn't too far off, but the Bulldogs were quite impressive and at the right time as expectations are beginning to rise.