- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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The SEC started bowl season 1-0 after Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday night.
Mississippi State racked some points up early, but Wake Forest fought back before the Bulldogs' defense hunkered down for most of the second half.
Here's the instant analysis:
How the game was won: Mississippi State's offense racked up 246 yards and 16 points in the first half, while the Demon Deacons managed just 130 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense played well all night, especially the closer Wake Forest got to the end zone. Mississippi State held Wake Forest to 287 total yards. On offense, quarterback Chris Relf overcame two interceptions to play effectively both throwing and running the ball. Mississippi State's running game put up 253 yards, including 180 from senior Vick Ballard.
Turning point: After Wake Forest cut Mississippi State's lead to 16-14 early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs' offense was pretty quiet in the third quarter. But with almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ballard took a carry up the middle for a 72-yard touchdown, making it a two-score game and giving the Bulldogs enough points for the win.
Stat of the game: The teams combined to go 7-of-30 on third downs, with Wake Forest converting just 2-of-17.
Stat of the game 2: Wake Forest won the turnover battle 4-0.
Player of the game: Ballard made the most of his final game in a Mississippi State uniform. The senior carried the ball only 14 times, but had 180 yards and had touchdowns of 60 and 72 yards. Ballard pounded the Demon Deacons' defense through the middle of the field and used his speed to make a handful of plays off the edge. He outrushed Wake Forest by 117 yards on 24 less carries.
Unsung hero of the game: Friday might have been defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's final game with the Bulldogs as well. He had a strong game, recording seven tackles (including two for loss), assisting on a sack, blocking his fifth career kick (a school record) and providing plenty of pressure inside Wake Forest's backfield all night.
Second guessing: Dan Mullen has a pretty aggressive coaching style, but he made a bad call when he decided to go for the end zone from the Wake Forest 9-yard line with six seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal. Wake Forest grabbed a chunk of momentum and drove 64 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it 16-14. Luckily for Mullen, the play didn't cost Mississippi State the win.
What it means: Mullen has now directed Mississippi State to bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade. It also gives Mississippi State its fifth straight bowl win overall. The Bulldogs have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Mississippi State didn't live up to its higher expectations this season, but getting to seven wins -- including a bowl victory -- will make the offseason much easier for Mullen and his players.
Record performance: Cox wasn't the only one taking home a school record. Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens entered the game with a school-record 1,276 receiving yards. The ACC's leader in receiving for the 2011 season added to his record-setting year by gaining 54 more yards on nine catches, giving the junior 1,330 yards on the year.
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