September 27, 2011 9:46:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- That sound you heard throughout Oktibbeha County was the sigh of relief of every Mississippi State football fan wearing black Saturday night.
Mississippi State moved back in the win column, but it made 55,116 fans who participated in a "black out" promotion at Davis Wade Stadium survive a 26-20 overtime scare against Louisiana Tech.
The win marked the first time MSU has come out on top in an overtime game in Starkville.
MSU intercepted quarterback Nick Isham twice in Louisiana Tech's last two possessions to preserve a nerve-wracking victory.
Once MSU sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley corralled the final interception in the first drive of overtime, MSU coach Dan Mullen decided to go for the end zone with a 17-yard touchdown strike from Chris Relf to LaDarius Perkins.
"I give our guys credit (because) they kept playing, fighting for four quarters and beyond," Mullen said. "When we needed to make a play, we made a play."
Perkins, who had 70 yards on the evening, admitted to thinking the football had been thrown to the opposite side of the field, but he realized instantly it was leaving the lights and heading in his direction. Seconds later, the Bulldogs mobbed the sophomore for helping MSU avoid an upset loss to a Western Athletic Conference opponent.
"The play is called cheetah where I release out of the backfield and run a wheel route to the outside," Perkins said. "I never thought once about losing this game and knew we'd pull it out some way, somehow."
For 58 minutes, Louisiana Tech (1-3) dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but Isham, a 17-year-old quarterback, made a throw he'd surely like back. With his team in range for the game-winning field goal, the freshman lofted a pass into triple coverage toward the corner of the end zone that Johnthan Banks intercepted.
"(Nick) played real well (but) just made a few mistakes down the stretch, which most young players do," Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. "He played well enough for us to win it at the end of the game."
Banks' interception was redemption after wide receiver Quinton Patton victimized him for 11 catches for 87 yards. The play marked the third-straight game Banks recorded an interception. The junior is tied for sixth all-time in school history with 10 interceptions.
"That was huge," Mullen said. "You're looking at us trying to have to race down the field to get a field goal. There was a point in the game where you thinking, 'Come on -- make a play', and I think we made every big play from that moment on."
Mullen attempted to force a momentum switch with a fake punt that failed to get a yard and a deep throw by Relf that was intercepted by defensive back Quinn Giles. Both of the turnovers turned into 10 combined points for Louisiana Tech and caused boos to rain down on Scott Field.
"We talked about coming into this game expecting to win, and I could sense they expected to," Dykes said. "We just made a couple critical turnovers late in the game, and that was the difference."
MSU (2-2) couldn't mount a consistent offense and was 3 of 16 on third-down conversions. Relf also struggled, going 14 of 29 for 164 yards with an interception.
However, when overtime came Mullen looked to his 6-foot-4 senior for a big play to send everybody home without the need of a field goal.
"I don't think Chris played his best game at all, but he stayed in there under pressure and threw the game-winning touchdown," Mullen said. "Fifteen years from now, people are going to remember the game-winning touchdown in overtime, not the other ones."
Relf wasn't available to the media after the game. It was the second game in a row he wasn't made available after the game.
MSU's longest play of the game was a 31-yard pass to junior tight end Marcus Green. MSU had just two plays for more than 15 yards against a fast defensive front.
MSU's tailback combination of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins was the most effective source of offense, accounting for 115 rushing yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.
"I like to have the balance between the two and mix those guys up," Mullen said.
Ballard did most of his damage in the first half, while Perkins got to the corner on outside runs in the final 30 minutes.
Ballard's touchdown run tied for third in school history with 24 rushing touchdowns. The senior ranks eighth all-time in career scoring.
"I was just trying to get to the end zone," Ballard said. "I could smell it. Not really smell it, but I knew I was close."
Since 1987, MSU has never beaten Louisiana Tech by more than a touchdown. It entered the evening as a 19-point favorite.
"It's hard to win a Division I football game," Mullen said. "Go ask the 60 (FBS) teams that lost today if it's hard."
MSU will re-enter Southeastern Conference play Saturday when it plays at the University of Georgia. MSU will try to win in Athens, Ga., for the first time since 1956.