Mississippi State huddled for one final meaningful time during the 2016 season with the clock at Tropicana Field frozen at 14 seconds and Miami (Ohio) ready to kick an easy field goal to win the St. Petersburg Bowl. The Bulldogs’ one-point lead felt even smaller than that with a go-ahead, 37-yard field goal looming.
For Dan Mullen, though, the lead felt safe. The Mississippi State head coach told the special teams unit tasked with making this kick tough that he was confident. They had blocked an extra point earlier in the game and they would block this kick, he told them.
Mississippi State did just that, denying the RedHawks and finishing thes season with a 17-16 win.
“Honestly, I thought we were going to block the kick. We were due,” Mullen said after the game. “At that moment you have confidence in the guys. We’d practiced it, we got one earlier, we’re due. Let’s just go make the play and win this game.”
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Nelson Adams reached his arm up highest, but there was a whole horde of Bulldog special teamers around him. The defensive lineman, playing in his final game at MSU, deflected the ball and sent it bouncing toward the end zone. The clock ran all the way down to five second as Mississippi State’s signature cowbells clanged through the Trop. The Bulldogs (6-7) salvaged a stunning win in St. Petersburg to finish a wobbly season with a postseason victory on the back of one made field goal and one blocked field goal during the fourth quarter.
Mullen couldn’t help but think about the whole unpredictable year as the RedHawks (6-7) tried to upset their SEC opponent. MSU’s campaign began with a missed field goal and shocking loss to South Alabama. Four of Mississippi State’s seven losses were decided by seven points or fewer.
Even the wins were almost unexplainable. The Bulldogs knocked off Texas A&M when the Aggies were ranked in the top five. Their regular season ended with a road upset of rival Ole Miss.
“I told the guys, ‘Westin Graves made the game-winning field goal today and we win on the final play of the game, which is kind of the opposite of what happened most of the year,’” Mullen said.
The win, which gives the SEC a perfect start to bowl season, was partly thrilling in its ugliness. The RedHawks took an early lead when kicker Nick Dowd sunk a field goal less than five minutes in and then added a touchdown pass from quarterback Gus Ragland to wide receiver James Gardner midway through the second to build the lead. With a chance to stretch their advantage to 10 points, though, Miami (Ohio) had its extra point blocked.
This was enough to confirm MSU’s scouting report and give Mississippi State faith entering the final seconds.
“We had noticed on film that the kicker kind of kicked line drives, so all that was going through my head was get your hand up,” Adams said. “Everyone was pretty confident we were going to block it.”
It was a fitting ending to a weird Monday morning game. Kickoff took place shortly after 11 a.m. in front of a crowd of 15,717. It was the first bowl game of the season to include a team from a Power Five conference and the Bulldogs, who entered with a sub-.500 record and finished second-to-last in the SEC West, only qualified because of its Academic Progress Rate. The RedHawks, who finished second in the MAC East, only reached the game after regrouping from an 0-6 start with six straight wins. Throw in the home of the Tampa Bay Rays as an unusual venue, and it never seemed realistic the game would be normal.
I thought the facility was fantastic. I thought the stadium was really kind of—that was kind of cool to play in that stadium. Everything about it felt different. It felt kind of fun. Like a bowl game.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach
Miami (Ohio) played from ahead for nearly the entire game, although its lead never swelled past nine points. The RedHawks led from the 10:07 mark of the first quarter until Graves drilled a 36-yard field goal for MSU with 12:03 remaining.
Nick Fitzgerald, though, kept Mississippi State afloat. The quarterback, who was the Bulldogs’ game MVP, threw for 136 yards and ran for another 132 and two touchdowns. The sophomore accounted for 268 of MSU’s 335 total yards.
“There were just times we weren’t putting anything together,” Fitzgerald said.
And the same was true for Miami. The RedHawks had the final chance to deliver a winning blow. Instead, they made the final mistake.
“We should’ve made that last kick,” Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin said. “It was a pretty good opportunity for Miami football to play Mississippi State and go up against some guys that don’t look like the guys we normally go against. I think our guys definitely took advantage of that and made the most of it.”