Bulldog Post-Gator Bowl Notebook

Denico Autry

JACKSONVILLE – Arceto Clark was Mississippi State's leading receiver as a junior and four of his grabs went for touchdowns. But he went his entire senior regular season without finding the end zone. Bowl season was another matter.

Clark's magnificent end-zone grab just before halftime put him on the scoreboard at last, and came on his 35th reception of the year. He finished with three grabs and a best season of 36 balls.

By scoring today, Clark also apparently became the first Bulldog ever to record a touchdown in three bowl games. He had a 4-yard grab in the first Gator Bowl, and a 31-yarder in the Music City Bowl. As best records show, no Bulldog has ever even scored in three-straight bowls, kicking or catching or running, making Clark unique.

*He would far, far rather have brought a another trophy back home. RB LaDarius Perkins must settle for a piece of program history. He rushed for 84 yards in the Gator Bowl, giving him 1,024 for the season. He became the ninth Bulldog ever to rush for 1K yards in a year, in the 12th time it has been done at State.

But Perkins was just following the lead of former teammates Anthony Dixon and Vick Ballard who are part of that elite club, both breaking the thousand under Dan Mullen. "It's good to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers," Perkins said. "Vick was a 1,000 yard rusher last year and I tried to keep it going this year. And make sure I'm capable next year, too. So going into next year it's a positive upside of getting a thousand yards. My offensive line made sure I was going to get that today and we did.

"We just didn't result in a victory and that's the main thing, getting a victory. But we're going to put this loss behind us and move forward, we're looking forward to having a great season next year also."

State graduates no regular rushers off the 2012 team lineup, though WR Chad Bumphis did get to carry the ball once in his final bowl. He gained three yards, giving him 232 on 27 career carries.

*Mississippi State did achieve at least one other team objective Tuesday. The Bulldogs weren't beaten in the return game. This was a genuine concern given the prowess of Northwestern, and game-breaker Venric Mark, running back kicks. For his three kickoff returns Mark managed 67 yards with nothing longer than 27 yards. The more meaningful matchup was the punting game where Mark averaged over 20 yards per attempt, which would have led the NCAA if he met statistical minimums. His team did with a NCAA-best 17.3 yards. Yet Mark did not try, fair-catching every chance. One of those, in the third quarter, he fumbled and had to fall on. It could have been a game-changer as State trailed just 20-13 at the time and a recovery would have been at the Wildcat 26.

No surprise though for a Mississippi State coverage team which led the nation with a net of eight yards allowed all year. Baker Swedenburg booted the ball five times for a 43.2 yard average. "Honestly I just hit my spots today and had good hang-time," Swedenburg said. Good enough to let the county's best cover club do their thing and shut Mark down, the punter added.

"He didn't seem too eager to return any, I mean I wouldn't be either if (Darius) Slay and (Jamerson) Love were running at me. It was definitely something in the punt teams' mind, an obstacle to overcome for sure."

Freshman PK Devon Bell had an efficient day as well, making field goals of 27 and 47 yards. The latter matched his rookie-season best, at LSU. On the downside, Jameon Lewis' attempts to return a kickoff as he had in the Egg Bowl, for a 100-yard touchdown, came up far shorter. Exiting the end zone twice he made it back to just the 14 and 15 yards lines and netted 68 yards on four total attempts.

*Tyler Russell won't want to recall New Years Day 2013, but he will review the game as a good quarterback should. He just won't see the sort of good quarterback Russell was for so much of 2012 when he re-wrote program passing records.

Having thrown just six interceptions all season, the junior was picked off four times in the Gator Bowl alone. This by a Northwestern defense with only nine picks all regular season. The first was the most immediately painful, three snaps into the afternoon when lineman Quentin Williams read the short route for an easy interception and touchdown return, though Russell did catch him at the goal line.

Though by-far his poorest passing day as a Mississippi State starter, this also gave Russell six picks in consecutive games as he was intercepted twice in the Egg Bowl. Before now he had never had multiple turnovers in back-to-back games of any sort, though in a relief role at LSU in 2010 he was intercepted three times. The last game a Bulldog quarterback threw four balls to the wrong team was 2007 when Wesley Carroll was picked four times by Arkansas.

On the plus-side, his touchdown before halftime was the first scoring bowl-pass of Russell's career. He did not even toss the ball serving mop-up duty in the 2011 Gator Bowl; and missed the Music City Bowl entirely with injury. He added another touchdown in the second half. Russell now has ten games with two or more touchdowns, eight of them this season.

He has extended his season record for touchdowns tossed to 23, and with 37 career touchdowns Russell is just one shy of Derrick Taite's mark of 38.

*Not all the pass-picking was by Northwestern. The Wildcat quarterbacks combined for three interceptions, two from S Nickoe Whitley. This gave him three for the season and ten career picks, tying him with the graduating Corey Broomfield and other alums for 7th on the MSU list.

But Whitley spoiled his second interception, simply spiking it in front of everyone for a 15-yard penalty. "Well, I got a little too excited then," he said. As to what words his coach greeted him with on the sideline? "Just keep your composure, that's all."

*The Bulldog secondary was playing under revised management after cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith's abrupt Christmas move to Auburn. Safeties coach Tony Hughes took over the whole secondary.

On top of that, Mullen turned defensive play-calling over to co-coordinator Geoff Collins rather than coordinator and line coach Chris Wilson. Whitley downplayed any distractions. "It wasn't really different, we're always still going to have to look at the sideline to get the call no matter who is calling it. (Collins) has been calling thema all week, so we were used to it."

*Whitley's penalty was not the only flagging of State on a turnover. Russell's fourth interception was being returned by Nick Van Hoose when somehow the Bulldogs earned a sideline interference penalty. It only cost five yards as Van Hoose had reached the ten-yard line, but did make the game-clinching touchdown that much easier.

*The best Bulldog return of the day was by DE Denico Autry. Cut down on a play, he bounced up looking for a running back as he should. "Initially I got cut so I just hopped up and he threw the ball right into my hands, and I just ran." He covered 43 yards before all the bouncing and banging was done, to the Wildcat 14-yard line. The big play went for no good though as Russell immediately threw it back to the Wildcats.

*A record remains unbroken. Senior CB Johnthan Banks, the Thorpe Award winner, was looking to snap his tie for the career interceptions mark shared with Walt Harris (1992-95). Banks entered with 16 career picks, the last October 20 against Middle Tennessee. On that play and return though he injured a knee that hampered him—denials aside—the rest of the season.

Sadly his final Bulldog game ended early. On a punt return in the second quarter Banks stayed down after the tackle with what proved to be a severe laceration of his left leg. Mullen automatically feared even worse, until seeing the replay which showed no joint damage or broken bone that could impede Banks' draft status.

"He had a massive gash in the side of his leg that they had to stitch up. And with that, I think he just didn't feel right. He wanted to go back in. But I told our trainers unless he's 100% don't try to put him back in the game."

Banks actually did get onto the field in the third quarter late but was just too hampered to operate. He was the first Bulldog to exit the field after the clock ran out.

*By playing in the Gator Bowl, these Bulldogs matched the program record of three-consecutive postseason games set in 1998-2000. But they fell short of becoming the first three-win group.

They also failed to win a sixth-straight bowl overall dating to 1999, which would have given them the nation's longest such active streak.

*Two trends collided Tuesday and one won. Dan Mullen entered the game with a 15-win streak in non-conference play, including consecutive bowl victories. The streak dated to his 2009 debut season after a loss to Houston. He is now 16-3 outside conference play.

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