STARKVILLE, Miss. — When the UMass Minutemen made the trek south to take on No. 21 Mississippi State, they weren’t traveling to accept a check and come home.
UMass came to Starkville to win and the Minutemen struck fear into the Bulldog faithful for four quarters. Thanks to two defensive stops in the red zone and a late punt return for a touchdown, Mississippi State was able to fend off the feisty Minutemen, 34-23, on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
“I thought our coaches got our players ready to go. We got where we wanted to go, but Mississippi State was just too tough,” coach Mark Whipple said. “Our guys competed, and we made some good plays on both sides of the ball.”
The Minutemen (2-7) had a 20-13 lead at halftime thanks to an interception for touchdown by Isaiah Rodgers and a 69-yard touchdown pass from Ross Comis to Andy Isabella, but were unable to sustain much offensively the rest of the way.
Comis performed well in his relief of starting quarterback Andrew Ford, who was sitting because of a concussion suffered last week. The junior quarterback went 15 for 26 for 223 yards with a touchdown pass and an pick-6 that gave Mississippi State an early 7-0 advantage.
UMass had 350 yards of total offense with Marquis Young totaling 91 yards on 11 carries and Isabella catching seven passes for 158 yards and the touchdown.
Young thought the team did everything it could to be in great shape in the first half. The Bulldogs just made the plays after coming back out of the locker room.
“It was a good feeling to be up a score at half but they came out firing,” Young said. “They had momentum and what we needed to do was stop them on first down.”
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald led the Bulldogs (7-2) to 75- and 79-yard drives in the third quarter, ending with him scoring on touchdown runs of 8 and 10 yards. Those two scores coupled with Mississippi State’s defensive efforts left the Bulldogs up, 27-20, heading into the final quarter.
Logan Laurent cut the deficit to 27-23 with a 26-yard field goal with 8:18 left. But with five minutes left a UMass drive stalled, bringing on Laurent to punt. Deddrick Thomas took the punt back 83 yards to seal the ball game for the Bulldogs.
Fitzgerald was a point of emphasis for the UMass defense, which felt it controlled the dual-threat quarterback well enough. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 139 yards and ran for 135 yards, moving him to fourth in SEC history for rushing yards by a quarterback (2,303). But he threw a pair of interceptions, including the pick-6 to Rodgers.
“Throughout the week we knew the quarterback, that’s the go-to guy so we were keying on him a lot,” said UMass linebacker Jarell Addo, who had a game-high 13 tackles. “I feel like the defense stepped up and made great plays. We had a few key three-and-out stops.”