NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Capping a tough season playing in the Southeastern Conference with a bowl victory means the Mississippi State Bulldogs are celebrating how they finished rather than lamenting what might have been.
Senior Vick Ballard ran for 180 yards and the two longest touchdowns in the Bulldogs' bowl history, and Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 on Friday night in the Music City Bowl. The Bulldogs have won five straight bowls, two under coach Dan Mullen.
"It's big for the team and Mississippi State University because we go out with a winning season and going to a great bowl game," Ballard said.
Mississippi State's losses came to teams ranked either at the time of the game or going into the postseason, including three ranked in the Top 10 — all in the SEC West.
Now the Bulldogs (7-6) have won consecutive bowls for only the second time and first since 1999-2000. Two of the Bulldogs' losses came to LSU and Alabama, who will play in the BCS national championship game Jan. 9.
Coach Dan Mullen said this win will propel the Bulldogs into the offseason, and their goal remains winning an SEC title.
"In the Southeastern Conference, that next step is a huge step to go play for that championship," Mullen said. "Look, the SEC West championship will be decided at the national championship game this year, I guess. That's the next step in this program, and that's a big step for us. But I think the players coming in now can see there is that light at the end of the tunnel."
Mississippi State overcame four turnovers thanks to Ballard's long TD runs and six sacks — its highest total since piling up seven in a win over Florida in 2000.
"We thought they were going to bring the heat," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "At times, we just didn't protect as well as we could."
Wake Forest (6-7) snapped a two-game bowl winning streak. The Demon Deacons of the Atlantic Coast Conference have lost both bowls against the SEC and finished the season with losses in five of their last six games. They did double their win total of 2010.
Chris Relf started for the Bulldogs and played the whole game with Tyler Russell limited by a sprained knee. Relf ran for 64 yards and threw for 129 yards and a TD with two interceptions. Mullen said Russell would have played if something happened to Relf.
The Demon Deacons, who held the ball for more than 35 minutes, tried to rally.
They converted two fourth downs before Brandon Maye sacked Tanner Price for the sixth time, forcing Wake Forest to kick a 46-yard field goal to pull to 23-17 with 3:27 left. Wake Forest forced Mississippi State to punt, getting the ball back with 2:15 to go. But Price threw incomplete on three straight passes, the last to Terrence Davis on fourth-and-7 with 1:40 left.
"All in all, we had our chances," Grobe said. "We just didn't take advantage of them."
That had Bulldogs fans clanking their cowbells and chanting "S-E-C! S-E-C!" as Mississippi State ran out the clock. The Bulldogs picked up their trophy, then went to the edge of the stands to start high-fiving fans.
Ballard came just shy of Walter Packer's school-record of 183 yards rushing in the 1974 Sun Bowl against North Carolina. The senior more than compensated for a first-quarter fumble that led to Wake Forest's first TD and only lead with his 60-yard TD run.
"I haven't really fumbled too much all year," Ballard said. "I didn't let it get to me. I just knew I had to step up and make a play."
But both his TD runs remained a blur after the game, and Ballard said he couldn't remember how he got there.
"I just found a crease and hit it," Ballard said.
Mississippi State scored 16 straight points after that to take control, and the Bulldogs' 16-7 lead at halftime would have been bigger if not for three turnovers in the first half, including an interception in the end zone with a second left. Bud Noel intercepted Relf's pass at the Wake Forest 1 in the second half.
The Demon Deacons opened the second half by driving 64 yards before Tommy Bohanon ran in a TD from a yard out to pull Wake Forest to 16-14. But Mississippi State sacked Price four times in the third quarter alone and harassed him into plenty of throws that hit the ground before reaching receivers.
Relf scooped up a low snap in the shotgun and got the ball to Ballard, who ran through the middle of the line and outraced the Demon Deacons for a 72-yard TD with 12:53 left. That put the Bulldogs up 23-14 and gave Ballard 179 yards on 11 carries. His first TD came three plays after Wake Forest turned one of his fumbles into a 14-yard TD by Brandon Pendergrass.
Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock said he thought they did a good job stopping Ballard most of the game and blamed missed assignments, including some by himself, for the TDs.
"They took it to the house on us a couple times," Whitlock said.
Fletcher Cox had a sack and also blocked a 33-yard field goal, grabbed out of the air by teammate Johnthan Banks. That set up the Bulldogs' go-ahead drive as Relf broke loose for his longest run this season of 27 yards. Relf then dropped back and hit Arceto Clark with a 31-yard TD pass for a 13-7 lead with 12:41 left in the second quarter.
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