December 31, 2011 12:24:00 AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the mind of every Mississippi State University football fan and coach Dan Mullen, the decade of futility is over.
For the first time since 2000, MSU completed back-to-back winning seasons with a 23-17 victory against Wake Forest on Friday night in the Music City Bowl.
In the past two seasons, MSU (7-6) has 16 wins, which is tied for the ﬁfth most in a two-year stretch in school history. The 1940-'41, 1998-'99, and 1999-2000 teams each won 18 games, while the 1980-81 squads had 17 victories.
"We sold these guys a plan that they could build a foundation for a great future to this program," Mullen said. "I told you all we'd paint the town maroon, and the party should start in the music city right now."
The victory gave MSU five straight postseason wins, which ties the nation's longest winning streak dating back to a 1999 Peach Bowl win against Clemson when the Bulldogs were coached by Jackie Sherrill.
"Dan has done a great job of understanding what to do at a place like Mississippi State," Sherrill said. "What does that mean? It means, you're not at Alabama or LSU and you have to coach up the recruits that other schools didn't want like Vick Ballard. However, when you win here, it's much more sense of satisfaction."
The victory helped Mullen push his bowl record as a Division I coach to 8-1, which includes his time as an assistant coach at the University of Florida and Utah. The only loss is a 41-35 defeat to the University of Michigan in the 2005 Capital One Bowl in the final game by Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr.
Wake Forest (6-7) capitalized on the momentum of MSU's second fumble in as many drives to score first.
Ballard, a senior tailback who hadn't fumbled in 197 touches, put the football on the ground. Six plays later, Wake Forest running back Brandon Pendergrass nearly walked into the end zone to help the Demon Deacons take a 7-0 lead.
"I think one of the reasons we had a good season when many people picked us to not be very good was senior leadership," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "I think we won games to get here because of who we are rather than the kind of talent we had at times."
Ballard's next touch was markedly different.
MSU's single-season touchdown record-holder took the ball 60 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Ballard's run was the longest by a MSU player in a bowl game, and swung the momentum back to the majority of maroon and white fans among the crowd of 55,208 at LP Field.
"This win was big for me and the team to leave this way in my last game," Ballard said. "(To be underrated) is just something I use sometimes as fuel to help keep going."
After an 11-play drive by Wake Forest's run game, MSU junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox blocked a 33-yard field goal. The 295-pound lineman nearly took the football off the right foot of kicker Jimmy Newman.
Cox and defensive tackles Josh Boyd and freshman Curtis Virges disrupted the timing of quarterback Tanner Price by forcing the sophomore to scramble out of the pocket.
"It was just a matter of getting off the ball quicker than I even thought I could, and that just
comes with studying a lot of film even in the kicking game," said Cox, who is a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
With the cowbells ringing in the background long after Cox's block, Chris Relf gained 27 yards on a draw play up the middle in the second quarter. He then threw a 31-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Arceto Clark.
Relf, the MVP of the 2011 Gator Bowl, ended his college career with 193 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-4 quarterback capped 2011 with the school's second-most efficient passing season, as he completed 57.8 percent of his passes.
Relf ﬁnished his career as the all-time winningest quarterback in school history (15-7), while ranking ﬁfth in touchdown passes, seventh in touchdowns responsible for, and eighth in passing yardage.
"I'm not leaving (MSU) a loser, and I can always say I'm a winner now," Relf said. "I feel like I had to lead these guys and always be confident, so that's what I did tonight."
Leading 16-7, MSU had an opportunity add three more points before halftime when it held the ball on Wake Forest's 9-yard-line. However, Mullen elected to run a play that resulted in a interception by strong safety Duron Lowe.
"I was smiling and laughing (at halftime) because I'd thought maybe I'd given you guys another chance to second guess me again," Mullen said. "We had done enough things to be way behind, and I was smiling because we could look up and see we're up by nine."
Wake Forest walked the football down the field on the first drive of the second half. A seven-play drive ended with junior fullback Tommy Bohanon plowing in from 1 yard out for his second touchdown of the season.
MSU put the game away with a 72-yard touchdown run up the middle by Ballard. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer ran past three defenders after clearing the line of scrimmage. The fourth-quarter touchdown was the final score and capped Ballard's two-year career at MSU with a career-high 180 yards on 14 carries.
"It's the difference in the game," Grobe said of Ballard's big runs. "We got a really disappointed group of seniors, but I'm proud of them."
Mullen improved to 20-0 when leading after three quarters, while the Bulldogs won their 34th-straight contest when leading entering the ﬁnal quarter.
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