FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen walked through the locker room after the Bulldogs beat Massachusetts and noticed that his players didn’t know whether to celebrate.
“Guys aren’t sure,” he said after the Bulldogs rebounded from a mediocre first half — again — to win 47-35 on Saturday.
“That’s how young a team we are: ‘Are we supposed to smile? We won a game but I made a mistake,'” Mullen said, imitating his players’ confusion. “Yeah, we won a game. Enjoy it.”
The Bulldogs (2-2) have struggled all season with inconsistency, and it was never more frustrating than when they spotted then-No. 20 LSU a 20-point lead last week, rallying to lose 23-20. Against UMass, Mississippi State trailed 14-6 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half before finding a rhythm.
Nick Fitzgerald led the Bulldogs 65 yards in 80 seconds, hitting Fred Ross for a 9-yard touchdown to make it a one-point game at the half. In the third quarter, the two connected for a 46-yard touchdown before UMass scored to retake the lead.
Then the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns just 17 seconds apart, on Aeris Williams’ 16-yard run and then another on the next play from scrimmage when Jamoral Graham returned an interception 38 yards for a score.
“Everybody was hyped and they wouldn’t even let me sit down,” Graham said. “And I was tired.”
Four minutes later, Fitzgerald hit Farrod Green from 13 yards out to make it 41-21 just before the end of the third quarter.
Fitzgerald completed 25 of 38 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and he also ran for 110 yards. Fred Ross caught eight passes for 126 yards and two TDs for Mississippi State, which once again struggled to play well for two halves in a row.
“It’s hard to get a win,” Williams said. “But we were way superior to them.”
Andrew Ford, making his second start for the injured Ross Comis, completed 24 of 40 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns for UMass (1-3). But he also overthrew his receiver on the first play after Mississippi State’s go-ahead touchdown, and Graham was there to make it 34-21.
UMass failed to move on its next possession and punted it back to the Bulldogs, who took over on their own 39-yard line. Fitzgerald went 3 for 3 on the drive and also added a 15-yard run as Mississippi State converted its third touchdown in 4 minutes, 11 seconds.
“I had a good time coaching the game,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “Our guys battled. I’m proud of them. There was a lot more good than bad.”
In addition to the LSU loss, the Bulldogs also led South Alabama 17-0 at halftime in their opener but lost 21-20. Against South Carolina, Mississippi State led 24-0 at halftime before holding on for a 27-14 win.
“We play a good half here and a good half there,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve just got to string two good halves together and get rid of the terrible ones.”
Marquis Young ran for 125 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown in the first quarter that gave UMass a 7-3 lead. Jalen Williams caught two touchdown passes, and Bernard Davis and Sadiq Palmer each had one for the Minutemen.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs needed this game to replace Tulane on the schedule. UMass agreed as long as MSU came to New England first. The Minutemen will visit Starkville next year and again in 2020.
UMASS: You can’t say UMass, one of just four FBS independents, is afraid to schedule tough opponents. The Minutemen have now played two SEC teams and one from the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with Florida International.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: A week off before hosting Auburn.
UMASS: Tulane on the UMass campus in Amherst.