STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Fittingly, senior offensive guard Tobias Smith was the last player out of the Mississippi State locker room late Saturday night.
With cowbells still clanging in the distance, he limped out wearing a smile as wide as his massive barrel chest.
Talk to coaches or players, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Smith is the heart and soul of this football team. He’s fought through injuries his entire career, including a nasty knee injury a year ago.
But he just keeps chugging along, a lot like the Bulldogs, who have been fighting for respect this entire season despite rising to No. 19 in the polls.
Their 41-31 victory over Tennessee should quiet some of the doubters, at least for now.
“That’s all we’ve been hearing, who we hadn’t played and how our schedule was soft,” said Smith, who left the game in the second quarter after re-injuring his knee, but returned for both of Mississippi State’s fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
“We have a lot of faith in each other and a lot of faith in our coaches, and we know what kind of team we are. We showed it tonight.”
Something else the Bulldogs showed (and have been showing all season) is that they’re learning how to win.
When they need a play, somebody’s there to make it.
“What’s happened for us is that in years past during big times in the game, everybody kind of looked around,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “This year, everybody’s like, ‘Give me the ball. I’m going to be the one to make the play.’
“It’s not just one guy, either.”
Take your pick from Saturday.
There was Johnthan Banks’ strip of Tennessee running back Devrin Young on the sideline in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Vols might be putting together a drive to go ahead. The Bulldogs led 27-24 at the time and turned Banks’ big play into a touchdown three plays later.
“Hopefully, we’ll get the respect we deserve now, because our team’s for real,” Banks said.
On offense, the Bulldogs started fast, then hit a lull, but closed with a flurry.
Junior quarterback Tyler Russell passed for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 12 touchdown passes this season and only one interception.
He was at his best in the game-clinching drive when he hit Chad Bumphis for 10 yards on a third-and-7 play. Russell had the presence to change the play at the line and went to his third option. Later in that same drive, he scrambled away from pressure and connected with Bumphis for 23 yards.
And on his final touchdown toss, he lofted one to the back of the end zone for a leaping Malcolm Johnson in the final seconds.
“Tyler missed some reads earlier and could have very easily gotten flustered, but he just stays calm and makes the plays he needs to,” Mullen said.
That’s been the trademark of this entire team, which is why Mullen didn’t fret during the first five games, when the Bulldogs tended to play down to their competition.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Mississippi State’s toughest test had probably come against Troy on the road. The Bulldogs’ other victims were Jackson State, South Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn, so it’s not exactly been a murderer’s row for Mississippi State.
That’s what made the Tennessee game so important.
“Our locker room was ridiculous,” Banks said. “Ya’ll can’t imagine what our locker room was like. This is the biggest win probably since I’ve been here.”
Now, we find out what Mississippi State does with it. This is the first time the Bulldogs have been 6-0 since 1999.
Up next is Middle Tennessee at home, and then comes a wicked stretch that begins with Alabama on the road. But a victory over Middle Tennessee would ensure a third consecutive winning season for the Bulldogs, and the last time that happened was 1997-2000, when they had four straight under Jackie Sherrill.
“We’re halfway,” Mullen said. “It’s been a great first half with a lot of football to play.”
That may be, but the Bulldogs have some doors open to them that haven’t been open for a long time.
“Four years ago, we went out and sold these kids on being able to build something special here in your home state of Mississippi,” Mullen said. “We’ve had 20 straight sellouts now. The atmosphere was unbelievable, and these kids believe in what we're doing, believe in themselves and believe in each other.
“It all shows out there on the field.”