Despite an uncomfortable heat wave, Mississippi State University handled the game against the University of Southern Mississippi easily on Saturday, defeating the Golden Eagles 38-15.
The Bulldogs got off to a great start as Tommy Stevens, a quarterback from Indianapolis and a senior transfer from Penn State University, took them down the field for a touchdown during the first drive, capped off by a 28 yard touchdown pass to Osirus Mitchell, a junior wide receiver from Sarasota, Florida.
Stevens would start 9-10 for 105 yards and two touchdowns, but what started out as the story of a star quarterback’s stellar home opener quickly became the story of a true freshman stepping in to lead his team to victory.
Late in the first half, Stevens was pulled out of the game with an apparent shoulder injury. While his exact status is still unknown, there did not appear to be major concern among the coaching staff.
That left true freshman Garrett Shrader, a freshman quarterback from Charlotte, North Carolina, to take the reins for MSU. Bulldog fans were certainly concerned when they noticed the absence of Stevens, and this concern was only compounded two plays into the next drive when Kylin Hill, a starting running back from Columbus, also went down with an injury.
The injuries did not slow down the Bulldog offense, which, Shrader said, operates with a “next man mentality.” Both Shrader and Nick Gibson, a senior running back from Birmingham, Alabama, would finish out the drive for MSU and put seven more points on the board. Head coach Joe Moorhead said the coaching staff will put in whichever players will get them the victory.
“Whoever we got to put in, we’re gonna win with,” Moorhead said.
The ability to move on quickly despite injuries was an aspect of the game that Moorhead was particularly pleased about, as he said the Bulldogs stood tall in a trying time, losing both starting running back and quarterback.
“We didn’t flinch in the face of adversity," Moorhead said. "There were a lot of opportunities to, where a guy went down on offense, or a guy went down on defense or a play didn’t go the way we wanted to.”
Moorhead said he knew Shrader was ready to be put in the spotlight, and he was ultimately happy with his performance under pressure, as he kept the team on course to a victory.
“Confidence is one thing that Garrett Shrader does not lack," Moorhead said. "The situation is never too big for him. For a true freshman to come in and operate the way he did, he was 7 for 11 and ran the ball pretty well, so I was happy with him today.”
Shrader himself seemed confident as well, and ready to step up to the plate. By the end of the day, he would account for 71 yards through the air and 23 on the ground.
“It took a while to adjust, but schematically I was ready to go. I was a little behind on some things and some timing was off," Shrader said. "Tommy put us in a great position anyway, and the way Kylin and the offensive line was moving today, it just made it real easy for me.”
Hill’s return in the second half was a major relief for the Bulldogs. He was a huge presence for the second week in a row, rushing for 125 yards and averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. While that may have made Shrader’s job a little easier, it did not lower the expectations his teammates had for him in the huddle.
“All the guys were real supportive. There’s no let-off. They expect me to do the same thing Tommy does,” Hill said.
With no turnovers and nearly a hundred yards of offense produced, it was certainly an impressive showing for the young star. The only hiccups noticeable in the stands occurred when his helmet was knocked off twice, a statistic Moorhead quickly attributed to the freshman’s beard.
"Garrett needs to shave that beard. I think that’s why the helmet keeps popping off,” Moorhead said.
Just like in the face of adversity, Shrader stood tall and defended his beard as he said, "I think I’m gonna keep it."