October 13, 2013 1:38:25 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- That noise everybody in Oktibbeha County heard at 9:48 p.m. was a giant sigh of relief.
The Mississippi State football team avoided an upset by escaping with a 21-20 victory against a Bowling Green team itching to continue the tradition of Mid-American Conference opponents knocking off Bowl Championship Series schools.
In a season where MSU coach Dan Mullen has spoken constantly about "finishing," the Bulldogs left a partially empty Davis Wade Stadium playing surface dejected feeling the clock ran out on Bowling Green's comeback effort.
"It was a long, rough night. I'm not going to lie," MSU junior defensive tackle P.J. Jones said. "We should've really blown those guys out."
Mullen, who earned his 11th straight non-conference home win, proclaimed the evening a success and said injuries to the offensive line and secondary helped account for the close margin.
"We'll take it because a win is a win," Mullen said. "The time didn't run out on Bowling Green or anything like that. We had the ball at the very end of the game."
During a second half in which MSU (3-3) had just 134 yards, Mullen decided to go for the win late in the game on a fourth-and-3 inside the Bulldogs' 10-yard-line. Instead of kicking a short field goal that would've forced Bowling Green (5-2) to score a touchdown to win, Mullen decided to send Dak Prescott up the middle on a running play. The referees ruled the sophomore quarterback was short of the marker, which left the announced crowd of 55,148 wondering if it was going to witness the first upset of the Mullen era.
"I wanted to score there," Mullen said. "I wanted to put the ball in Dak's hands. I thought he was playing and running it pretty well. It didn't go exactly as I planned."
Mullen lamented the fact that at least five offensive lineman who started games last season were out of practice at one point this week, leaving the offense little time to build chemistry.
"We got to find a way to make some corrections and get some combinations together up front," Mullen said.
Quarterback Tyler Russell tried to make up the difference up front by throwing the football down the field. The fifth-year senior started the game and was 12 of 14 for 102 yards. He was sacked once.
"I felt we had some silly mistake and shooting ourselves in the foot when we got close on drives," Russell said. "I felt like in pregame warmups I could feel the ball coming out of my hand perfectly, but we just couldn't get in the end zone when we needed to."
MSU found itself with a early lead thanks to the re-emergence of a healthy LaDarius Perkins in the backfield. While being paired with all three backups in the backfield, Perkins earned 83 yards on 16 carries. The senior workhorse scored for the first time in more than a calendar year when he plunged in on a 1-yard burst for the second score.
"For the last couple weeks, I haven't been quick enough because with ankle injuries it's hard to overcome everything mentally," Perkins said. "You're just not playing with the same mental intensity because you're worried about things happening to your injury again."
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson made plays while running for safety all night. Johnson had 253 total yards, including 224 yards passing while creating new angles to throw from because of MSU's consistent pressure on the defensive front seven.
"This game showed us we can play with anybody in the country," Johnson said. "We knew we could, but it reaffirmed to us we could play right down to the end against a SEC team. Tonight we proved it to the rest of the country."
Johnson had split time with two other quarterbacks in the first six games, but his athletic ability allowed him to take every snap of the game against MSU and nearly lead the Falcons to the upset.
"That boy really surprised us with his ability to run," Jones said. "We hadn't seen him run on film all week, so we were all looking around with thinking, 'Man where did this come from.' "
MSU will have 11 days of preparation before it faces Kentucky on a Thursday night game in Starkville to complete a four-game homestand.
"When you have as many walking dead as we have on the offensive and defensive line, we need this break to get some players back that are critical to us," Mullen said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.