Wake Forest expected Mississippi State's defense to come after Tanner Price. Never did the Demon Deacons think they'd give up six sacks.
Tanner Price threw for 214 yards and helped Wake Forest hold the ball for nearly 36 minutes. The Demon Deacons also forced four turnovers, but they turned those into only one touchdown and came up short Friday night in a 23-17 loss in the Music City Bowl.
"I thought they did a nice job mixing blitzes up," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said of the Bulldogs. "They brought a lot of corner pressure tonight, but it is not anything that we didn't expect."
Wake Forest (6-7) lost for only the second time in its last seven bowls. The Demon Deacons also finished the season losing five of their final six games, but Grobe isn't that upset after his team completed a turnaround from going 3-9 in 2010.
"Our problem more than anything else is the people we have had to play all year. We are a pretty good football team. ... Mississippi State is the same way. That's a really good football team we got beat by tonight, but they play in a great league and play great competition."
The Bulldogs (7-6) had their most sacks since piling up seven in 2000 in a win over Florida. Wake Forest took good care of the ball, but Fletcher Cox blocked a field goal attempt, and Price struggled at times with passes that sailed over receivers' heads or bounced off the ground too short.
Wake Forest got the ball back with 2:15 left. Price completed a pass on first down then was incomplete on the next four.
"I wasn't pleased with the way I played all the time, and I wish I could go back and capitalize on some plays," the sophomore quarterback said. "But I've just got to play better."
Vick Ballard ran 14 times for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns in helping Mississippi State win its fifth straight bowl and second consecutive under coach Dan Mullen. Ballard, the game's MVP, did most of his damage on touchdown runs of 60 and 72 yards to make up for a first-quarter fumble that led to Wake Forest's only lead at 7-0.
"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 Chris 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.
Cox also had a sack and his blocked field goal 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.