Mike Leach and the Mississippi State University Bulldogs were finally able to get back on track Saturday when they defeated the Vanderbilt Commodores 24-17. The game still featured many of the offensive woes that have plagued MSU throughout their now 2-4 start of the season. The difference came in the turnover margin, thanks in large part to MSU's defense and quarterback Will Rogers, a freshman from Brandon, Mississippi, who got his first career start for the Bulldogs on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished the game with five takeaways, two of them forced by linebacker Tyrus Wheat, a junior from Amite, Louisiana. Wheat was able to pounce on the loose football after his second forced fumble, giving the Bulldogs the chance to start a drive on the Vanderbilt 13-yard line, a drive that led to the game-winning touchdown.
"It feels great to help them out," Wheat said. "We put them in some great field positions and gave them some chances to score off of turnovers."
The other three Bulldog turnovers came in the form of interceptions, the first of which led to their first touchdown. Collin Duncan, a sophomore safety from Montgomery, Alabama, made a leaping one-handed grab to give the Bulldogs the ball. Will Rogers and a more smoothly operating air raid offense then took them straight down the field to take the 7-0 lead early in the first quarter. Coach Leach said he was impressed with the freshman's performance.
"Well, we had quite a number of people unavailable today," Leach said. "I thought he did a really good job of working through that. He had spurts where he played well, and I thought that was very impressive for a freshman. I think Will stayed relatively composed. I think he rallied at the end."
Rogers' commanding presence early on allowed MSU to jump to a 17-0 lead in the first half. However, it was Vanderbilt's offense that dominated in the second half, leading to a 17-point comeback that ultimately fell short.
At the end of the day, the Commodores were able to put up 478 yards of total offense, compared to MSU's 204. The radical difference was overcome by the overwhelmingly positive turnover ratio, but the yardage statistics paint a bleak picture of MSU's production against a largely inferior Vanderbilt team.
The off-the-field storyline at Saturday's game came in the unveiling of Mississippi's brand new state flag, freshly approved by the voters on Nov. 3rd. Flying alongside the American flag just outside the stadium, it was also carried onto the field with the team by senior defensive end Kobe Jones, from Starkville, Mississippi. He said the moment was especially significant.
"That moment meant a lot for me," Jones said about carrying out the new state flag." It was just a huge honor to be asked to carry out that flag. I felt very proud to finally wave a flag that unites all Mississippians. It was just a huge moment for me, and I guess for the whole state."
Despite the continued offensive struggles, MSU fans are glad to be back in the win column and hungry for more. The Bulldogs (2-4) will be back in action next week at home as they face the Auburn Tigers (4-2) on Saturday.