MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On the eve of the Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach took the opportunity in a pre-game press conference to badmouth the Texas Tech people who fired him 12 years ago.
The Red Raiders did their talking on the field.
Tech waltzed to victory in the Bulldogs’ backyard Tuesday night, winning 34-7 and holding Mississippi State to its lowest point total of the season. Tech ended a five-year stretch of losing seasons and won a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
Tech running backs Tahj Brooks and SaRodorick Thompson popped big run after big run in the first half and quarterback Donovan Smith got hot in the second half as the Red Raiders put it on their old coach in his first game against his former program.
“I guess the Red Raider gets the Pirate after all,” Tech interim head coach Sonny Cumbie said, referring to Leach’s nickname.
Both teams finish the season 7-6.
The Red Raiders sent Cumbie off to his next job, head coach of Louisiana Tech, on a high note. The Red Raiders were a double-digit underdog on Nov. 13 when they upset Iowa State in their second game under Cumbie and they were a 9½-point underdog Tuesday.
“Our players all along, man, they just never stopped believing,” Cumbie said. “Just excited for our program, the administrations at Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech to allow us to come back and finish this season. And the way we did, with these players, has been a lot of fun.”
Tech was up only 13-7 at halftime after several missed opportunities. But in the third quarter, Smith set up a touchdown with pinpoint passes to Travis Koontz for 39 yards and Jerand Bradley for 52 yards. Smith’s 1-yard keeper made it 20-7.
Mississippi State drove to the Tech 20 on the next series, but Tech defensive outstanding player Tyree Wilson foiled the Bulldogs with sacks on third and fourth down. Ten plays later, lanky receiver J.J. Sparkman high-pointed Smith’s 50-50 ball into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown that made the score 27-7.
An interception by safety Eric Monroe gave Tech possession at its own 15. On the ensuing eight-play drive, Smith hit Myles Price for 48 yards across midfield and Thompson’s walk-in touchdown from the 1 made it 34-7 with 8:47 left.
Tech finished with 522 yards, including 260 on the ground.
“You kind of admire the artistry of what somebody’s doing,” Leach said. “It’s a little tough if you’re getting your (butt) kicked to do that. If somebody goes out there and plays really well, it’s hard to dismiss and not appreciate it.
“All of the other stuff that’s been stated, it doesn’t change any of the facts on that. I was happy to see people that I know do well, but certainly we wanted to go in there and play really well, we wanted to win this game and we wanted to play well enough to do it convincingly.”
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers finished 32 of 53 for 290 yards, ending his streak of 300-yard games at 10. The Bulldogs’ 344 yards of total offense was their third-lowest output this season.
Leach dismissed any suggestion the Bulldogs were too handicapped by their missing several key players.
“Texas Tech was the biggest problem we had offensively,” he said. “I think they did a lot of good things defensively. I just didn’t think we were a consistent team. We didn’t get out of the blocks particularly well, we never got in a rhythm and I thought Texas Tech did a great job keeping us out of rhythm.”
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The 27-point margin of victory was Tech’s third-largest in a bowl game, less lopsided only than the Red Raiders’ 55-15 rout of Clemson at the 2002 Tangerine Bowl and the 49-21 conquest of Duke in the 1989 All-American Bowl.
Smith, voted Liberty Bowl most valuable player, completed 15 of 28 passes for 252 yards.
Brooks finished with 107 yards on 16 carries, Thompson with 80 yards on 14 attempts.
Tech’s success on the ground defied the norm. Mississippi State came in ranked 10th in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing only 100.8 yards per game, and Tech came in ranked 75th in rushing offense at 150.7 per game.
The Bulldogs held four 1,000-yard rushers from the SEC under 75 this season.
Cumbie credited line coach Steve Farmer for putting together a run-game plan that clicked.
“Their defensive front’s very good,” Cumbie said. “They’ve done a great job with their movement and pressures. But we felt like in some of our run schemes and some of our motions and movements, that we would be able to hit some creases, because they do move, they get moved so much up front. … They’re a very good opponent, but I did feel like we would have the ability to run the football.”
Tech punched Mississippi State early, scoring a touchdown and a field goal on its first two drives, both run-driven. Brooks’ 19-yard TD capped a seven-play drive that fueled by a 33-yard run from Thompson and 8- and 10-yard carries by Brooks.
Brooks’ 8-yard gain converted a third-and-6 from the Bulldogs’ 37-yard line and two plays later he bolted between left guard and left tackle for the touchdown.
After forcing a punt, the Red Raiders drove for a Jonathan Garibay 31-yard field goal. That 14-play, 79-yard series featured runs of 11 yards by Smith, 11 and 10 yards by Thompson and 11 and 12 yards by Brooks, as well as a 12-yard pass from Smith to Price that moved the chains on third-and-8.
However, a holding penalty on Weston Wright erased a Thompson carry to the MSU 4, and the Red Raiders wound up settling for the field goal.
That wasn’t the last missed opportunity by the Red Raiders. On their last three series of the first half, they reached the MSU 33, the MSU 33 and the MSU 8 and wound up with a turnover on downs, a punt and a field goal.
The field goal was a 26-yarder from Garibay just before halftime. It came moments after an Austin McNamara punt grazed the Bulldogs’ Austin Williams and Red Raiders linebacker Tyrique Matthews recovered at the MSU 14.
Rogers threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Rara Thomas that narrowed Tech’s lead to 10-7 on the third play of the second quarter. Cornerback Rayshad Williams had tight coverage on Thomas, who caught a back-shoulder throw near the goal line.
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Texas Tech wallops Mississippi State, Mike Leach in Liberty Bowl