Playing in the Southeastern Conference dimmed Mississippi State's high expectations this year. With the two longest touchdown runs in the program's bowl history, senior Vick Ballard gave the Bulldogs plenty to celebrate in capping the season.
The game's MVP ran for a career-high 180 yards, including TD runs of 60 and 72 yards, to lead Mississippi State over Wake Forest 23-17 Friday night in the Music City Bowl — the Bulldogs' fifth straight bowl victory and second consecutive under coach Dan Mullen.
"Getting a big win allows us to go celebrate this victory later on tonight," Mullen said.
Those high expectations were hurt by losses to SEC teams either ranked at the time or going into bowl season. 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 title game on Jan. 9.
Mullen said this win will propel the Bulldogs into the offseason, and their quest 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 now have lost both bowls against the SEC and finish the season having lost five of their last six games.
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 within 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.
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.
"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 a Relf 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 within 16-14. But Mississippi State sacked Tanner 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 and a 13-7 lead with 12:41 left in the second quarter.