December 31, 2013 10:32:00 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Early and often, Dak Prescott eliminated any fears he would be rusty after not starting a football game in 59 days.
After reviving his team's bowl chances in the annual rivalry game against Ole Miss on Thanksgiving night, the Mississippi State sophomore quarterback wrote himself into the school record book on New Year's Eve in a 44-7 victory against Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
"It was just another game about fighting through adversity," said Prescott, who was named the game's MVP. "I didn't pay attention to anything other than our game plan and playing our best game of the year."
Prescott, who hadn't started a game since Nov. 2 against South Carolina, had a career-high 386 yards and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing). His effort helped MSU (7-6) close the season with three victories in a row. It also allowed MSU coach Dan Mullen to match the school record for bowl victories (three) and to lead a program that has recorded four-straight winning seasons for the first time since 1997-2000 when Jackie Sherrill led the Bulldogs to 30 wins in that stretch. Mullen is 17-1 against non-Bowl Championship Series conference schools since taking over the program in 2009.
"I know a lot of prognosticators thought we wouldn't even make a bowl game, and now we're leaving this bowl game as champions," Mullen said. "We had a bunch of players that knew what it took during a bowl month to prepare properly."
Rice (10-4), the Conference USA champion, had no chance to stop the 250-pound Prescott throwing or running. Shaking off a nerve injury in his throwing arm that plagued him for final month of the regular season, Prescott showed he was healed and displayed pinpoint accuracy even when pressured by Rice's smaller 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
"It really was all about the game plan and my teammates," said Prescott, who was 17 of 28 for 283 yards. "On the rushing touchdowns, I basically walked in the end zone, and on my passing scores, my offensive line gave me all the time in the world."
Prescott's evening ended at the start of the fourth quarter to a rousing ovation from a maroon-clad partisan crowd of 57,846. Prescott received a hug after the game from Mullen, MSU President Mark Keenum, and MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin.
"After everything I've experienced this season, it is about Mississippi State University and this football team being there for me when I needed them the most," Prescott said about his injuries and the death of his mother, Peggy. "I can't be more thankful that all the administration stuck with me."
Prior to the game, Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond said the Owls would monitor Prescott's running ability. But the Bulldogs' quarterback used his right arm to gash the secondary in the first half. Of Prescott's 12 first-half completions, half of them were to junior wide receiver Jameon Lewis.
"Jameon was able to make some moves on their safeties to get open in the middle of the field," Prescott said. "They played right into our attack." Rice was content to have its All-C-USA cornerback play man-to-man coverage and Lewis ran past every defender for a Liberty Bowl record 220 receiving yards, which also was a school record for a bowl game.
"I think we didn't get containment on Prescott and then was impossible to cover an athlete like Lewis for double-digit seconds on a play," Rice coach David Bailiff said. Prescott answered an early Rice touchdown with a 10-yard wheel route pass that hit senior tailback LaDarius Perkins in stride.
On the following drive, Rice loaded up the line of scrimmage to prevent Prescott from running with the ball, so he floated a pass down the sideline to Lewis for a 35-yard gain. The pass set up a 1-yard plunge by Ashton Shumpert to give MSU the lead for good.
Prescott's next two touchdown passes were his most impressive. On the first, he rolled to his right and fired the ball to the opposite side of the field for a 13-yard completion to senior tight end Malcolm Johnson. After a designed throwback pass that required an impressive sell job on the fake and major arm strength by Prescott, Johnson dove into the end zone.
Prescott set up the next scoring pass by showcasing his ability to extend the play. Prescott's athleticism gave Lewis time to find an opening in the defensive backfield for a 53-yard pass. Prescott then displayed his arm strength by fitting a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Artimas Samuel into a tiny window.
Prescott's three passing touchdowns tied a MSU bowl game record set by Chris Relf in a 52-14 victory against Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs nearly matched that margin of victory Tuesday with 44 unanswered points against the Owls.
Leading 27-7 at halftime, MSU went to its ground game to expand the lead. Prescott relied on his large offensive front to dominate the line of scrimmage. He finished with a team-high 78 rushing yards on a night the team finished with 239 (an average of 5.2 yards per carry).
For the season, Prescott who came in leading the Bulldogs in rushing despite missing most of the final two games, rushed for 829 yards this season, the most by a MSU quarterback in a season. Prescott showed no signs of favoring his right side as he ran over several linebackers on carries up the middle. He even moved out on the perimeter as a lead blocker on toss plays.
"I think we have dozens of players with that type of resolve, but there's no question Dak Prescott has the special leadership qualities as a young man you need in that position," Stricklin said. "We're so proud to have him represent our school and for him to be part of our family. He's just impressive."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.