NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vick Ballard ran for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns to lead Mississippi State over Wake Forest 23-17 Friday night in the Music City Bowl — the Bulldogs’ fifth straight bowl victory and second consecutive under coach Dan Mullen.
The Bulldogs (7-6) capped a season that started with high expectations hurt by losses to Southeastern Conference teams either ranked at the time or going into bowl season by winning consecutive bowls for only the second time and first since 1999-2000.
Ballard’s TDs were the longest in the Bulldogs’ 14 bowl games. Mississippi State overcame four turnovers thanks to six sacks — its highest total since piling up seven in a win over Florida in 2000.
Wake Forest (6-7) snapped a two-game bowl winning streak. The Demon Deacons of the Atlantic Coast Conference now have lost both bowls against the SEC and finish the season having lost five of their last six games.
Chris Relf started for the Bulldogs and played the whole game with Tyler Russell limited by a sprained knee. Relf ran for 64 yards and threw for 129 yards and a TD with two interceptions.
The Demon Deacons, who held the ball for more than 35 minutes, tried to rally.
They converted two fourth downs before Brandon Maye sacked Tanner Price for the sixth time, forcing Wake Forest to kick a 46-yard field goal to pull within 23-17 with 3:27 left. Wake Forest forced Mississippi State to punt, getting the ball back with 2:15 to go. But Price threw incomplete on three straight passes, the last to Terrence Davis on fourth-and-7 with 1:40 left.
That had Bulldogs fans clanking their cowbells and chanting “S-E-C, S-E-C” as Mississippi State ran out the clock.
Ballard came just shy of Walter Packer’s school-record of 183 yards rushing in the 1974 Sun Bowl against North Carolina. The senior more than compensated for a first-quarter fumble that led to Wake Forest’s first TD and only lead.
Mississippi State scored 16 straight points after that to take control, and the Bulldogs’ 16-7 lead at halftime would have been bigger if not for three turnovers in the first half, including an interception in the end zone with a second left. Bud Noel intercepted a Relf pass at the Wake Forest 1 in the second half.
The Demon Deacons opened the second half by driving 64 yards before Tommy Bohanan ran in a TD from a yard out to pull Wake Forest within 16-14. But Mississippi State sacked Tanner Price four times in the third quarter alone and harassed him into plenty of throws that hit the ground before reaching receivers.
Relf scooped up a low snap in the shotgun and got the ball to Ballard, who ran through the middle of the line and outraced the Demon Deacons for a 72-yard TD with 12:53 left. That put the Bulldogs up 23-14 and gave Ballard 179 yards on 11 carries. His first TD, a 60-yarder, came three plays after Wake Forest turned one of his fumbles into a 14-yard TD by Brandon Pendergrass.
Fletcher Cox had a sack and also blocked a 33-yard field goal grabbed out of the air by teammate Johnthan Banks. That set up the Bulldogs’ go-ahead drive as Relf broke loose for his longest run this season of 27 yards. Relf then dropped back and hit Arceto Clark with a 31-yard TD pass and a 13-7 lead with 12:41 left in the second quarter.