Bulldogs edge UCF

Published 2:31 am Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sylvester Croom and Mississippi State capped a turnaround season built on defense with one of their stingiest efforts.

Anthony Dixon scored on a 1-yard run with 1:54 remaining, Derek Pegues had two interceptions and Mississippi State kept Central Florida’s Kevin Smith from breaking the single-season rushing record in a 10-3 victory at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.

In a game featuring anemic offenses and 17 punts, the Bulldogs (8-5) kept Central Florida (10-4) out of the end zone and held Smith to 119 yards. The junior finished 61 yards shy of Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 2,628 yards set for Oklahoma State in 1988.

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It was the lowest scoring Liberty Bowl since Penn State beat Tulane 9-6 in 1979.

Dixon finished with 86 yards and won the game with a 1-yard dive after Kyle Israel threw his third interception.

The Bulldogs held the Knights to 219 yards and forced four turnovers.

It was the kind of game Croom, in his fourth season, and the Bulldogs have played all year as they resurrected a lifeless program that hadn’t won more than three games in six seasons.

As the Bulldogs did in big wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama this season, they concentrated on the running game — both on offense and defense. Smith found the going difficult in the second half and finished with an average of 3.4 yards per carry after rushing for 188.3 yards per game during the regular season.

Croom, the Southeastern Conference coach of the year, countered the Knights’ running game with Dixon, a sophomore power runner who finished with 1,066 yards. But like the rest of the Bulldogs’ offense, he wasn’t much of a factor in the first half.

Most valuable player Pegues gave Mississippi State two excellent opportunities with interceptions in the first 30 minutes, returning the ball to Central Florida’s 6 and 38. The safety’s first pick set up a 22-yard field goal by Adam Carlson in the second quarter.

The teams were tied 3-3 at halftime, mostly due to conservative play-calling and poor play from the quarterbacks.

Passes were rarely aimed more than 5 yards downfield, and when they were thrown deep they were dropped or picked off.

Neither team converted a third down in the first half (0 for 16) as Mississippi State was held to 84 total yards and Central Florida to 79.

Israel had 12 yards passing and two interceptions by halftime and Mississippi State’s Wes Carroll had 15 yards and an interception. UCF also didn’t get much help from kicker Michael Torres, who gave the Knights a 3-0 lead in the second quarter with a 45-yard field goal, but missed from 32 and 37 in the second half.

Mississippi State finished with 199 total yards and Blake McAdams tied the Liberty Bowl record with 11 for MSU. But the Bulldogs came up with just enough big plays after Keith Fitzhugh picked off Israel’s pass at Mississippi State 41 with 5:47 left.

Carroll, pulled the series before because of poor play, returned and responded with two rushes for 17 yards and two completions for 15 yards. All went were first downs and spurred a 10-play, 59-yard drive that consumed 3:53 and finally led to a touchdown.