NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Mississippi State withstood a late Wake Forest rally to down the Demon Deacons 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday at LP Field in Nashville.
The game was Wake Forest's 10th all-time bowl appearance and first since the 2008 EagleBank Bowl and the Deacons now hold a 6-4 record in bowl games.
The Deacons (6-7) fell victim to Mississippi State's (7-6) potent rushing attack as Vick Ballard ran for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns to head up the Bulldogs' 255 yards on the ground.
The loss overshadowed a career day for Wake Forest redshirt sophomore Michael Campanaro who caught 10 passes for 128 yards - both career highs.
After the Deacs had fallen behind by two scores in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Newman nailed a 46-yard field goal with 3:24 remaining in the game to cut the MSU lead to six points and Wake Forest followed by forcing a three and out to get the ball back.
But Tanner Price fired incomplete on three straight passes to give the ball back to the Bulldogs, who were able to run out the clock and secure the victory.
Wake Forest scored first on a 14-yard rush by senior Brandon Pendergrass late in the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs answered almost immediately on a 60-yard run by Ballard and then took the lead for good on a second quarter touchdown pass from Chris Relf to Arceto Clark.
The Deacons pulled within two points at 16-14 on a third quarter touchdown run by Tommy Bohanon but would get no closer as Ballard ripped off a 72-yard touchdown rush to restore the margin to two scores.
Wake Forest's forced four turnovers, its second-highest total of the season, coming on interceptions by Duran Lowe, the first of his career, and Merrill Noel, along with fumble recoveries by Nikita Whitlock and Kenny Okoro to keep the Deacons within striking distance for the entire contest.
Price completed 24 of 46 passes, tying a season high for completions, for 214 yards.
Pendergrass and Bohanon supplied the two Demon Deacon touchdowns, both on the ground, coming on rushes of 14 yards and one yard, respectively. Pendergrass was the Deacons' leading rusher on the day with 73 yards on 24 attempts.
Chris Givens caught a career-high nine passes for 54 yards. Noel, Justin Jackson and Scott Betros tied for the Deacon lead with seven tackles each.
In addition to Ballard's 180 yards, Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf threw for 129 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 64 more yards.
After Wake Forest won the toss and deferred, giving its opponent the ball to start the game for the first time all season, Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis ripped off a 52-yard kick return to set the Bulldogs up at the at the Wake Forest 37-yard line, but some good defensive play by the Demon Deacons held strong and forced a punt.
In fact, the Deacon defense proved dominant early, pushing the Bulldogs back for minus-10 yards through their first two drives.
On the third MSU drive, Wake Forest again came up big as Betros forced a fumble that was recovered by Okoro to give the Deacons the ball at the Bulldog 34-yard line.
While the Deacons could not advance into scoring position on that drive, they picked up another turnover on Mississippi State's next drive, with Jackson forcing a fumble and Nikita Whitlock falling on the ball at the Bulldog 36-yard line.
This time Wake Forest would convert, as Pendergrass burst over the left side with a head of steam for a 14-yard touchdown run to put the Deacs in front 7-0.
Mississippi State answered back only minutes later as Ballard broke free for a 60-yard touchdown to knot the game at 7-7 late in the opening quarter.
Newman lined up for a 34-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter, but the kick was blocked giving Mississippi State a much needed shot in the arm.
Two plays later, Relf hit a wide-open Clark for a 31-yard touchdown strike, but Derek DePasquale hooked the PAT left to leave the score at 13-7.
With 5:44 remaining in the first half, DePasquale redeemed himself by knocking through a 33-yard field goal to push the Bulldog advantage to 16-7.
The Deacons went three and out on the next drive, but rather than punting after running forward in his typical rugby kick style, Alex Wulfeck shoveled the ball to Josh Bush who just reached the first down marker on the first Demon Deacon fake punt in recent memory to keep the Wake Forest drive alive.
However, after advancing to midfield, the Deacs were stopped again on third down and
The Bulldogs looked set to score again just before halftime, but Lowe picked off Relf in the end zone, his first-career interception, to keep the Deacon deficit to nine points heading into the locker room.
Wake Forest got the ball to start the second half for the first time all year and took advantage of the opportunity, going 64 yards for a touchdown.
On the first play of the drive, Price found Campanaro for a 32-yard gain to the MSU 32-yard line. After a completion to Givens brought the Deacs inside the five, Bohanon capped off the drive with a 1-yard rush up the middle to pull Wake Forest within two points at 16-14.
Early in the fourth quarter, Ballard scampered for his second long run of the evening, this one a 72-yard touchdown, to make the Bulldog lead two scores again at 23-14.
The Deacons mounted a late rally and Newman hit a 46-yard field goal, tied for his longest of the season, with 3:27 left in the game to make it a one-score game, but Wake Forest could not finish off the comeback.