ACC: 2011 Music City Bowl

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.

Music City Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
Here are three keys for Wake Forest heading into tonight’s game against Mississippi State:

1. Continue to protect the ball. Wake Forest has a chance to set the single-season record for fewest turnovers. The Deacons come into the bowl game with just 12 turnovers on the year (8 INTs, 4 fumbles). The school-record for fewest turnovers in a season is 13, set by the 2004 team. Quarterback Tanner Price has done his part and hasn’t thrown a pick since he had three against North Carolina on Oct. 29. Price’s career long streak is 134 attempts without an interception.

2. Get the running game going. The greatest area of improvement for the Deacs from 2010 to 2011 has been its passing offense, but Mississippi State has one of the better pass defenses in the country. The Bulldogs are No. 23 in the country in pass defense and No. 37 in pass efficiency defense. To help open things up for Price, Wake Forest needs to make the Bulldogs respect their running game, which currently ranks No. 96 in the country at 118.92 yards per game.

3. Stop Vick Ballard. The senior ran for 1,009 yards this season and has scored 29 total touchdowns over the past two years. He is coming off an impressive performance in the Egg Bowl, running 23 times for 144 yards and a touchdown and also catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Relf. The Deacs’ rushing defense has been kind, allowing 162.92 yards per game.
The Deacs (6-6) are back in the postseason after a two-year hiatus and will face Mississippi State (6-6). Here's a quick preview of tonight's matchup:

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterback Tanner Price. There have been a lot of playmakers for the Deacs on both sides of the ball this season, but Price enters the bowl game on a hot streak. He needs only 103 yards to become the most prolific sophomore passer in school history, surpassing Riley Skinner, who had 4,255 yards in 2006-07. Despite the lackluster finish by the team, Price finished the regular season strong, with no interceptions and six touchdown passes in 127 attempts.

WHAT TO WATCH: Mississippi State’s defensive line against Wake Forest’s offensive line. While the Bulldogs’ offense has struggled and been inconsistent, their strength this year has been their defense, and tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd have been the anchors. The Deacs’ offensive line is the biggest in school history, averaging 314 pounds per player, but they’ve allowed 2.42 sacks per game. The passing offense has been the difference for the Deacs this year. Cox had 7.5 tackles for loss over consecutive games against Kentucky and South Carolina. The Bulldogs have the nation’s No. 19 scoring defense, holding opponents to just 19.92 points per game.

WHY TO WATCH: Long time, no see. It’s Wake’s first bowl appearance since 2008. After a 3-9 season in 2010, the Deacs won five ACC games for just the fourth time in school history. Wake Forest exceeded expectations this season and added an interesting plot twist to the ACC race by playing Clemson for the Atlantic Division title. The Deacs came up short by a field goal, but they solidified their place in the postseason with a win over Maryland.

PREDICTION: Wake Forest 24, Mississippi State 21. The Demon Deacons have too many difference-makers on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs to overcome. It’s been a record-setting year for Price and receiver Chris Givens, and freshman cornerback Merrill Noel leads the nation with 20 passes defended. The difference will be Wake Forest’s passing game and its ability to protect the ball.



Friday, 11/28
Saturday, 11/29