Vick Ballard made sure his last collegiate game wouldn’t be remembered for a costly fumble.
So the Mississippi State running back did what he does best. He found the end zone.
Ballard broke free for two long touchdowns and a career-high 180 rushing yards to lift the Bulldogs to a 23-17 victory over Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl on Friday night in front of 55,208 at LP Field.
His second score, a 72-yard sprint early in the fourth quarter, clinched MVP honors and was the deciding blow to the Demon Deacons (6-7), who failed to take advantage of four Mississippi State turnovers.
Ballard ranks second all-time in school history with 29 rushing touchdowns. He scored a school-record 19 in 2010, including three in a 52-14 rout of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
With 12:53 left, clinging to a 16-14 lead, after a low snap, quarterback Chris Relf handed off to Ballard, who cut left and burst through a hole. He raced up the middle and then veered near the sideline, shaking off a shoelace tackle at the 5-yard line to waltz into the end zone.
“I don’t even remember how I got there,” Ballard said laughing. “I know 10 other guys had to do their job. I just found a crease and hit it.”
Ballard’s night started off bumpy. He lost a fumble for just the second time this season. It gave the Demon Deacons the ball at the 38-yard line. Six plays later, Brandon Pendergrass rushed to the left side, scooting just inside the pylon for a 14-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 4:24 left in the first quarter.
“I didn’t let it get to me,” Ballard said. “I just knew I had to step up and make a play because that is how I always think. So that is what I did.”
On a third down on the ensuing possession, the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder raced 60 yards untouched for a touchdown. It capped off the first of three straight scoring drives for Mississippi State (7-6), which won its fifth straight bowl game to tie Rutgers for the longest active streak.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt by Jimmy Newman, which was recovered by Johnathan Banks. After Relf picked up 27 yards on the ground, he found Arceto Clark for a 31-yard touchdown. Derek DePasquale’s extra point attempt sailed badly to the left, keeping the score at 13-7. DePasquale made up for it later, drilling a field goal with 5:44 left for a 16-7 lead.
Wake Forest burst out of the gate in the second half, capping off a seven-play, 64-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run from fullback Tommy Bohanon to pull within two.
The Bulldogs sputtered offensively on their next three drives, with an interception at the goal line, a punt and a turnover on downs. Ballard ended the drought with his season-long touchdown on the third play of the first possession of the fourth quarter.
“I think we contained the offense as a whole pretty well, except for big plays,” Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock said. “I think they were caused by our defense just really missing the mark. As a good offense, you’re going to exploit that and that’s what they did. They exploited our missed opportunities, being off our assignments and being out of our gaps and they took it to the house on us a couple times.”
Despite entering the game as the SEC’s fourth leading rusher this season, Ballard failed to draw the same national attention that fell upon Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Auburn’s Michael Dyer.
His significance at Mississippi State won’t go overlooked.
Ballard finished his senior season with 1,190 rushing yards – the fourth most in school history. A junior college transfer, in just two years he moved to 10th among career rushing leaders, amassing 2,157 yards.
“Whenever you know you are as better as the other guys and you are not getting as much recognition, it makes you want to work that much harder,” Ballard said. “That is what I use as fuel to work harder. ... You have to prove yourself every week in the Southeastern Conference. Whoever comes in [at running back next year] is going to have to start from scratch like I did.”