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MSU Holds Off Wake Forest 23-17 To Claim Music City Bowl Title

NASHVILLE - His last game was his best.
Donning the Maroon and White for the final time Friday night, senior running back Vick Ballard put the team on his back as he rushed for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns to propel Mississippi State to a 23-17 victory against Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

The Pascagoula, Miss., native was named MVP, while his production was the second best in MSU bowl history.

It was the Bulldogs' fifth-consecutive bowl win, a streak that currently ties Rutgers for the longest in the nation. MSU also improved to 9-6 in bowl outings, with a 4-2 mark against ACC foes.

"This is just the beginning," third-year MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "We have a lot more bowl games and championships to win here at Mississippi State."

Ballard deserves a bulk of the credit for MSU's latest achievement.

His play was critical, as the Bulldogs (7-6) had to overcome an early deficit and four turnovers, including his own fumble in the first quarter.

However, he made amends by breaking free down the sidelines for a 60-yard scoring scamper with 34 seconds left in the opening quarter to even the game at 7-apiece after the Demon Deacons had scored on a 14-yard run by Brandon Pendergrass.

"I didn't let it get to me," Ballard said of his fumble. "I just knew I had to step up and make a play. That's how I always think, so, that's what I did."

In the second quarter, Mississippi State turned to its passing game to take the lead for good when senior quarterback Chris Relf connected with a wide open Arceto Clark for a 31-yard scoring strike and a 13-7 advantage following the missed PAT.

That touchdown was set up when junior defensive end and All-American Fletcher Cox blocked a Wake Forest field goal. From a momentum standpoint, that play was huge as it provided an instant boost to the offense.

"It allowed us to turn around and get the quick score and take the lead," Mullen said.

The final points of the half resulted in a 33-yard Derek DePasquale field goal that put MSU up, 16-7.

In the second half, though, Wake Forest grabbed the early momentum when Tommy Bohanon closed the gap to 16-14 on a 1-yard plunge. However, that would be as close as the Demon Deacons would get.

Ballard made sure of that in the fourth quarter when he broke free for a 72-yard touchdown, the longest in MSU bowl history, to swell the lead to 23-14.

Wake would score again on a 46-yard field goal by Jimmy Newman, but from that point the MSU defense thwarted any comeback hopes by taking its play to another level.

"Even though we started slow and made a bunch of silly mistakes, no one panicked," Mullen said.

Especially Ballard, who finished his illustrious two-year career with 2,157 yards, the 10th-most in school history, including 1,189 this season.

Offensively, MSU outgained Wake, 382-287. Relf threw for 129 yards on 12-of-19 passing, while also rushing for another 64 yards en route to finishing his career as MSU's winningest quarterback (15-7).

"His career at Mississippi State has to go down as being extremely successful," Mullen said.

The defense was led by the play of Cox and Corey Broomfield, who registered a career-best two tackles behind the line of scrimmage to go along with a team-high nine tackles. It was a unit that recorded six sacks, the most since having seven in a 47-35 home win against No. 3 Florida on Sept. 30, 2000.

"I thought we played pretty good defensive football except for big plays," Wake coach Jim Grobe said.



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