There is never a foolproof way to know whether a Power 5 conference team with a losing record will demonstrate the motivation necessary to play well in a middle-tier bowl game. For Mississippi State, that was perhaps the biggest question as it took the field Monday for the St. Petersburg Bowl against Miami (Ohio).
This was a Bulldogs team, after all, that was capable of losing to Sun Belt foe South Alabama and beating No. 4 Texas A&M in the same season. This was a team that reached its school-record seventh consecutive bowl but did so only because there weren't enough six-win FBS teams this season, which allowed the Bulldogs to sneak in at 5-7 based on their Academic Progress Rate.
In the end, Mississippi State showed its talent and fortitude during a 17-16 comeback victory against Miami to close a roller-coaster season on a high note. The Bulldogs blocked Miami kicker Nick Dowd's 37-yard field-goal attempt with eight seconds remaining to secure the win after blocking a Dowd extra-point attempt earlier in the game.
Sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was the catalyst for the Bulldogs, carrying the ball 18 times for 132 yards with two touchdowns to help his team recover from a lackluster start and a 9-0 hole. Fitzgerald entered the day having rushed for at least 100 yards in five of his past six games, including a 258-yard rushing performance against Ole Miss in the regular-season finale.
His 44-yard touchdown run Monday brought Mississippi State to within 16-14 in the third quarter. Bulldogs kicker Westin Graves then buried a 36-yard field goal to give his team a 17-16 lead with 12 minutes, 3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to foil one of the feel-good stories in college football this season.
When Miami (6-7) began its Oct. 15 game against Kent State, the RedHawks were simply trying to salvage a shred of respectability in what had become a miserable season. They were winless at the halfway point, and little reason existed to believe anything particularly memorable would materialize the rest of the way.
Then came one of the most remarkable midseason turnarounds in college football history. Miami won six consecutive games to become the first FBS team to reach a bowl after starting 0-6. The RedHawks entered their game against the Bulldogs as 15-point underdogs but showed over the final six games they were more than capable of securing an upset.
Miami's rise coincided with the return of quarterback Gus Ragland, who sustained a torn right ACL last spring. Once he came back to the lineup against Kent State, Miami was an entirely different team. He threw 15 touchdowns with no interceptions over the final six regular-season games. The RedHawks developed more of a sustained rushing attack and began limiting their mistakes. Miami was minus-five in turnover margin through six games but finished the last half of the season at plus-eight.
On Monday, Ragland threw two touchdown passes. He also tossed the first interception of a college career that has spanned 17 games. Ragland did enough to lead his team into position to win on the final possession, but the Bulldogs (6-7) escaped thanks to another well-executed special-teams play.
"I told them about three plays earlier, I said, 'We're fine. We're going to block the kick,'" Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said after the game. "'We blocked the extra point earlier. We'll block another one. ...'
"They thought they'd run it down for one play. But we made the play when we needed to in the end."