The Associated Press
The Meridian Star
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Mississippi State's dominant performance in the Liberty Bowl has the Bulldogs aiming to play for higher stakes in next year's postseason.
The Bulldogs wrapped up a fourth consecutive winning season Tuesday with a 44-7 Liberty Bowl blowout of Rice that capped a three-game winning streak to end the year. All of Mississippi State's losses this season came against teams currently in the Top 25: No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 14 LSU, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 3 Alabama.
"Our expectations are always that we want to win the SEC West and represent Mississippi State and the whole state of Mississippi," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "That's the one thing we can control. Beyond that, you don't have much control over stuff. That's always going to be our goal. I think we embrace those expectations. I know our program does and our players do."
Mississippi State had reason to feel confident about its future after delivering the most one-sided victory in the Liberty Bowl's 55-year history.
Dak Prescott threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores to set a Liberty Bowl record by accounting for five touchdowns. Prescott's exceptional performance came less than two months after his mother, Peggy, died of cancer.
"It's really just been about Mississippi State University and this football team comforting me, being there for me and just helping me and making what I would say is the hardest thing in my life easier," Prescott said.
Prescott was 17 of 28 for 283 yards passing and also ran for 78 yards on 14 carries. His performance delighted a partisan crowd of 57,846 and capped a triumphant late-season performance amid personal tragedy for the sophomore quarterback. Prescott came off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead Mississippi State to a 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss last month that earned the Bulldogs a bowl bid.
Although Prescott and Tyler Russell had shared quarterback duties throughout the regular season, Prescott had the job to himself in the Liberty Bowl while Russell recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Prescott responded better than anyone could have reasonably imagined.
Prescott thanked his teammates, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, university President Mark Keenum and the entire Mississippi State community for sticking with him and helping him persevere.
"It just allows me to go out there and just play football in peace and be at ease," Prescott said.
Prescott wasn't Mississippi State's only star on a night when the Bulldogs outgained Rice 533-145 and scored the game's final 44 points.
Jameon Lewis caught nine passes for 220 yards to break the Liberty Bowl receiving record held by Houston's Vincent Marshall, who had 201 yards in a 44-36 loss to South Carolina in 2006. Lewis, a junior, also set the school single-game record.
"When he has the ball in his hands, he's special," Mullen said.
The Bulldogs also played dominant defense.
Rice had won the Conference USA title — its first outright league championship of any kind since 1957 — by relying on a rushing attack that was ranked 16th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Rice gained only 61 yards rushing — 179 below its season average — on 32 carries against Mississippi State. Charles Ross, who entered the day having rushed for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, was held to 28 yards on 10 carries.
"We knew coming into this game we were going to have to play our best to win it," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "We didn't."