No. 1 Georgia too much for Mississippi State football despite punt return TD, takeaways
STARKVILLE — There's a recipe for pulling off a major upset, and Mississippi State football had most of the right ingredients against No. 1 Georgia on Saturday.
MSU (6-4, 3-4 SEC) had a couple interceptions. It had a punt return touchdown, which came late in the first half to shift momentum. The opponent was coming off an emotional win.
And still, top-ranked Georgia (10-0, 7-0) proved to be too much en route to a 45-19 win. The reigning national champion took every blow from Mike Leach's squad and returned with a punch or two of its own.
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Mississippi State president Mark Keenum was in the student section taking part in “Swag Surfin.’” People were parachuting into Davis Wade Stadium. The sellout crowd, though filled with many Georgia fans, was letting the cowbells ring.
The energy was met by a three-and-out from Mississippi State’s offense on the opening drive. That was followed by a nine-play, 73-yard drive from Georgia, ending with a touchdown pass to All-American tight end Brock Bowers − who was standing alone in the end zone.
Georgia, coming off a massive win against Tennessee, showed no hangover entering Starkville.
This was just the second time in six home games MSU didn’t score on its opening drive. It was also the first time in those six games Mississippi State allowed a score on its first defensive drive.
Officiating hurts Mississippi State
Fans rarely walk away happy with SEC officiating, but MSU fans had extra cause for anger.
Late in the first quarter, MSU quarterback Will Rogers threw an incompletion that was nearly intercepted. However, after he released the ball, Rogers was tackled below the knees.
Officials threw a flag for roughing the passer, but then elected to pick it up. The drive resulted in a punt with UGA up 7-0.
Early in the second quarter, Georgia was putting together a lengthy drive against MSU. It appeared State was going to escape with no points allowed after forcing a fumble.
That was negated as officials blew the play dead due to forward progress. MSU immediately called a timeout and appeared to ask officials for a review. However, forward progress cannot be replayed.
Georgia settled for a field goal on the drive to extend its lead to 10-0.
Leach didn’t offer his thoughts on the officiating during his halftime interview with ESPN’s Molly McGrath. Instead, he deflected to asking for her thoughts on the calls.
Zavion Thomas creates spark
Even as Kirby Smart’s squad prepared to punt, it controlled the momentum. Georgia led 17-6 with 19 seconds left in the first half, and UGA was set to get the ball to open the second half.
Worst case, Mississippi State would tack on a field goal going into the break, but even that was unlikely. Freshman wide receiver and punt returner Zavion Thomas had other thoughts.
Thomas, off a bounce, fielded the punt and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. He ranked third in the SEC with 9.9 yards per punt return entering the contest.
After missing last week’s win against Auburn, Thomas returned in style against the nation’s top team.
Second half déjà vu
Mississippi State’s halftime momentum was short-lived. The second half started as a mirror image of the first.
Georgia used two plays to go 75 yards and regain a two-score advantage on its first drive. The drive was capped by a 70-yard touchdown run by receiver Ladd McConkey, who became a favorite for ESPN's broadcast crew.
MSU’s Air Raid offense offered little resistance. After a 13-yard completion to Caleb Ducking, Mississippi State had two of its next three plays go for negative yardage before a punt.
UGA responded with a 67-yard touchdown drive, stretching its lead to three scores at 31-12. MSU was never in the game after that.
Mississippi State has its final home game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN+/SEC Network+) against FCS foe East Tennessee State.
MSU follows that up with its regular season finale on Nov. 24 at No. 11 (No. 9 AFCA Coaches/No. 11 AP) Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2).
Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.