August 31, 2014 1:02:14 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jay Hughes waited a year for this.
Hughes, a senior safety from Oak Grove High School near Hattiesburg, sat out most of the 2013 season after rupturing an Achilles' tendon on the sixth play of the season opener against Oklahoma State.
On Saturday night, his return to the lineup was remarkable in a 49-0 victory against Southern Mississippi at Davis Wade Stadium. Starting for the first time in 364 days, Hughes registered his first career interception near the end of the first half when he picked off a pass by quarterback Nick Mullens in the end zone.
One quarter later, Hughes added his first career touchdown when he picked up a field goal that had been blocked by defensive end Preston Smith and raced 70 yards for a score.
For the Bulldogs, seeing the well-respected Hughes make an impact in his return was a joy.
"I think I was late getting in to hold for the extra point because I was too busy running and celebrating with him," MSU quarterback Dak Prescott. "To see him, after all he's been through, make that play, it was awesome."
Spreading the love
MSU's offense, which relied on Prescott much of 2013, showed a commitment to spreading touches to a number of weapons.
Tailbacks Josh Robinson and Nick Griffin received the majority of the carries. In the first half, Prescott completed passes to eight receivers. Griffin and Robinson combined for 121 yards and a touchdown, while three receivers _ De'Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, and Malcolm Johnson -- combined for five touchdown catches.
"I thought we did some good things offensively," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "There are some things to clean up, some drives we didn't finish. But overall, 550 yards and 49 points ... You'll take that."
Entering the game, MSU's defense seemed to have an advantage against USM up front. Last season, USM's offensive line gave up 36 sacks and finished 123rd in the country in rushing offense. That advantage was proven true Saturday night, as defensive end Preston Smith led an effort that harassed Mullens all night and allowed 75 yards rushing.
Sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones had a sack and three quarterback hurries, while Smith had an interception, three tackles, and blocked a field goal that turned into a 70-yard touchdown return by Hughes.
"We talked all offseason about being more explosive and getting to the quarterback," Smith said. "We showed that tonight. It seemed like we were able to get a lot of pressure, and guys just made plays."
The defensive line was just part of a dominant overall performance from the Bulldogs, who registered their first shutout since a 17-0 shutout of South Carolina in September 2009.
The Bulldogs chased forced three turnovers. Linebacker Zach Jackson also forced a fumble, which was recovered by defensive end A.J. Jefferson. Jackson's forced turnover was emblematic of a night when MSU substituted liberally on the defense, often bringing in a new unit from possession to possession. There wasn't a dropoff.
"In fall camp, everybody got the same amount of reps," Mullen said. "So tonight, we wanted to replicate that, get as many guys into the lineup early in the game as possible. When we took out the 1A defense and put in 1B, there was no difference in production. Proud of the way they played."
Career highs for Prescott
Prescott's career highs in passing yards (283) and passing touchdowns (three) lasted all of one game. The junior set both marks last season in the Liberty Bowl victory against Conference USA champion Rice. He eclipsed both records Saturday night, despite playing a little more than two quarters.
The Haughton, Louisiana, native passed for 284 yards and four scores, leading the Bulldogs to a 35-0 lead before exiting early in the third quarter.
"I thought I played OK," said Prescott. "I made some mistakes, threw a pick in the red zone. I can't do that. But overall, we scored 49 points, got the win. That's what you want."
New attendance record
Despite heavy rains that lingered throughout much of the afternoon, MSU opened the $75 million expansion to Davis Wade Stadium in style. The game featured a new attendance record of 61,889 that broke the mark of 58,103 set in 2009 against Alabama.
"Tremendous atmosphere tonight, great crowd," Mullen said. "I think that's our biggest crowd ever because we haven't had this new building before. But they were loud and into the game."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat