December 31, 2013 10:27:57 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Jameon Lewis' history in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium defines player development.
In the last time Lewis was in the city for a victory against Memphis in 2011, the Mississippi State slot receiver had a fumble, ran a punt return out of bounds at the 2-yard-line, and had an 82-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.
Two years ago, his career was defined inexperience and an inability to adapt to the speed of Division I college football.
"I know everybody has been excited about him since he's been here," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "When he has the ball in his hands, something special is going to happen."
That something special occurred Tuesday night, as Lewis set a Liberty Bowl and MSU single-game record with 220 receiving yards in a 44-7 victory against Rice.
Lewis, who was named MSU's outstanding offensive player, became the fifth player in program history to reach the 200-yard receiving plateau, joining David Smith (1970), Sammy Milner (1968), Danny Knight (1982), and Jamayel Smith (2008).
"I was just happy Dak kept finding me because I would look around for a spilt second and think, 'Wow, I'm wide open,' " Lewis said. "The coaches put me in a spot to make plays, but sometimes even when the play broke down Dak and I found each other."
One of the major questions entering this season was who was going to emerge to help replace the 12 touchdown catches the Bulldogs lost with the graduation of wide receiver Chad Bumphis. Entering fall practice, MSU had two returning touchdown catches among its wide receivers in camp. But MSU only had to look to Lewis, Bumphis positional backup for two years.
"I think he really embraced he was going to be the go-to guy after Chad left," Mullen said. "But he really embraced how to become a great football player."
Lewis, who had nine catches against Rice, finished with the third-most all-purpose yards in school history (1,537) yards. His knack for making big plays could help him eclipse Bumphis' numbers next season, especially since Mullen always has had a special slot receiver in his offenses. While Mullen was at Florida, current NFLer Percy Harvin lined up in the slot.
MSU (7-6) recognized early Rice (10-4) was playing one-on-one coverage on the outside, so it attempted to exploit mismatches in the middle of the field against the blitzing defense. Lewis set the AutoZone Liberty Bowl record for receiving yards, surpassing Houston's Vincent Marshall, who had 201 versus South Carolina in 2006.
Rice coach David Bailiff believed his secondary was unable to find Lewis after Prescott broke the defensive front's containment.
Prescott's ability to improvise and find Lewis offers a glimpse of what the Bulldogs could do in 2014, when they are expected to have nine returning starters from the 2013 Liberty Bowl.
After the victory, Mullen joked the only thing the 5-foot-9 Lewis might have lost from his first trip to Memphis is his breakaway speed after he was caught from behind on a 65-yard reception.
"When we were here before he was a speedster, but look now and he's an excellent route runner and getting open on his own tonight," Mullen said. "Maybe he needs to re-work his top end speed because he never gets caught from behind."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.