1. Chris Milton’s interception on the third play of the game
The play: Milton dove to intercept a pass by quarterback Dak Prescott on a deflected third-and-3 pass from the Mississippi State 32-yard line.
Why it was important: Tech’s 18th interception of the season gave the Yellow Jackets the ball on the Mississippi State 36-yard line less than a minute into the game, setting up a Synjyn Days touchdown to give the Jackets a lead that they never relinquished.
Also worth noting: Linebacker Anthony Harrell’s strong challenge on Prescott’s pass to wide receiver Jameon Lewis on a slant route nudged Lewis off his track and may have helped cause the deflection off Lewis’ hands and into Milton’s.
2. Darren Waller’s 41-yard touchdown catch from Justin Thomas
The play: On a play-action pass on a first-and-10 from the Mississippi State 41-yard line, Waller ran past cornerback Jamerson Love and caught Thomas’ pass in the end zone, fighting off Love, who was tugging on his jersey and drew a pass-interference penalty.
Why it was important: Waller’s sixth touchdown catch of the season extended the Jackets’ lead to 14-0 with 1:37 to play in the first quarter, giving Tech an advantage it would need as Mississippi State rallied.
Also worth noting: A-back B.J. Bostic was wide open running down the middle of the field as the Bulldogs bit hard on the play action. The drive had been extended by Thomas three plays earlier on a third-and-5 when he escaped the pocket and scrambled for 19 yards.
3. D.J. White’s pass breakup of Prescott’s pass to wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson
The play: After Waller’s touchdown, Mississippi State drove into the Tech red zone (following the play in which running back Josh Robinson was judged to have his forward progress stopped before losing the ball). On a third-and-9 from the Tech 15-yard line early in the second quarter, White made an athletic play to break up Prescott’s throw to Wilson.
Why it was important:The breakup forced Mississippi State to settle for a 32-yard field goal, the first of two first-half red-zone possessions in which the Bulldogs kicked field goals.
Also worth noting: The play before White’s was also important, as defensive tackle Patrick Gamble held his point and slowed up a run play, allowing defensive end Roderick Rook-Chungong to tackle Robinson for a one-yard gain to set up the third-and-9.
4. Prescott’s third-down incompletion in the red zone
The play: After White’s facemask penalty for taking off Robinson’s helmet gave the Bulldogs a first-and-10 on the Tech 16 with the score 14-10 in Tech’s favor, the Jackets stood firm again, forcing an incompletion on first down when Lawrence Austin blitzed, stopping Prescott for a three-yard gain on second down and then influencing Prescott to throw the ball away on third down with strong coverage.
Why it was important:It forced a second field goal and prevented the Bulldogs from taking a 17-14 lead.
Also worth noting: Tech ranks No. 27 country in touchdown percentage on opponent red-zone possessions, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 52.8 percent of their red-zone possessions. The Jackets later stopped the Bulldogs twice on downs in the red zone.
5. Synjyn Days’ 69-yard touchdown run
The play: Days took a handoff on a second-and-4 play at Tech’s 31-yard line on the opening possession of the second half and defeated four tackle attempts to run down the sideline for a touchdown that put Tech ahead 28-20 at 14:55 of the third quarter.
Why it was important: It set the tone for Tech’s punishing second half, when the Jackets needed just 34 carries to run for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Also worth noting: It was the longest run by a B-back since Jonathan Dwyer ran 69 yards for a touchdown against Florida State in 2009. Days finished with 171 rushing yards, a career high and the third-highest rushing total in a bowl game in school history, behind P.J. Daniels (307 yards, Tulsa, 2004) and Eddie Prokop (199, Tulsa, 1944).
6. Prescott’s 17-yard completion on fourth-and-21
The play: Following Days’ touchdown, the Bulldogs had the chance to draw to within one point again and steadily moved the ball to the Tech 25-yard line. Two Mississippi State penalties helped set up a third-and-21, where KeShun Freeman forced an incompletion by coming up the middle on a stunt to set up fourth-and-21 at the Tech 36. Without a reliable long-distance kicking game, Mississippi State went for it, with Prescott driving the ball to Wilson on the right sideline at the 21. Wilson fought free of White’s tackle attempt, but safety Corey Griffin cleaned up, knocking him out of bounds at the 19, three yards shy of the first down.
Why it was important: With Tech’s offense heating up, the Bulldogs couldn’t afford to come up empty, but did, thanks to Griffin’s stop.
Also worth noting: The Bulldogs were short-circuited by one of a number of drops of Prescott passes on 2nd-and-21, this one by Lewis. Griffin had just gotten on the field as Isaiah Johnson had left the game with leg cramps. On that particular play, due to Johnson and defensive back Demond Smith’s rib injury, he was one of four freshmen on the field. Defensive end KeShun Freeman and defensive backs Step Durham and Lance Austin were the others.
7. Thomas’ 32-yard touchdown run
The play: Following the fourth-down stop, B-backs Zach Laskey and Days ran six consecutive times to reach the Mississippi State 32-yard line. From there, Thomas kept the ball on an option play, froze cornerback Will Redmond with a juke and ran untouched into the end zone for a 35-20 lead.
Why it was important: The score began to close the door on the Bulldogs, who were now down two scores with about 23 minutes remaining.
Also worth noting: On the play, Thomas broke Joshua Nesbitt’s school record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. Nesbitt held the record with 1,037 yards, set in 2009. Thomas finished his first season as starter with a team-high 1,086 rushing yards. On the ESPN broadcast, Brent Musburger commented, “They just can’t stop him, folks.” The entire front seven collapsed on Laskey, opening up the perimeter for Thomas. Wide receiver Corey Dennis walled off a cornerback and A-back Dennis Andrews cut blocked a safety to clear the alley.
8. Jamal Golden’s forced fumble on a pitch to Robinson
The play: After Thomas’ touchdown put Tech up 35-20, Mississippi advanced the ball 44 yards in just three plays. On a second-and-4 from the Tech 45-yard line, Golden read the speed option play and hammered Robinson just as he took the pitch from Prescott, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Rook-Chungong.
Why it was important: Mississippi State was moving the ball again, and White had just left the field with cramps, further depleting the secondary. It returned the ball to Tech in good field position, setting up another touchdown.
Also worth noting: Golden said after the game that he recognized the play because defensive coordinator Ted Roof ran it with the scout team “50 times” in bowl practice. It was Tech’s second takeaway of the game, their 19th in the past seven games. Golden sped by a block attempt to lay the hit on Robinson. It was Golden’s third forced fumble of the season. The first was the game-changing turnover late in the Georgia Southern game. With a sack and a fumble recovery, Chungong may have played the best game of his career.
9. Ricky Jeune recovers onside kick
The play: Jeune didn’t field Devon Bell’s onside kick try cleanly, but managed to hold onto it to enable Tech to retain possession after Mississippi State had scored to bring the score to 42-27 with 14:53 left in the game. The ball did not hop up, as Jeune seemed to expect. The ball hit Jeune on the leg and fell to the ground, and was still between his legs as Jeune fell to the ground. He was able to grab it and pull it to his body as two Bulldogs jumped on him.
Why it was important: Mississippi State was trying to steal a possession and might have had Jeune not had the poise and strength to handle the loose ball. Had the Bulldogs recovered, their offense would have taken the field against a Tech defense that was wearing down. Instead, Tech drove for the game-clinching touchdown.
Also worth noting: That was the first time Jeune had touched the ball in a game. The scrum was rather feisty. Both Shaun Kagawa and Laskey were involved in small shoving matches as the pile cleared.