A bowl victory that increased Mississippi State’s win total this season to four and No. 22 Tulsa’s failed attempt to add another unlikely comeback to its impressive collection this season took a back seat to the melee that broke out Thursday shortly after the Armed Forces Bowl ended.
True freshman Will Rogers scored his first rushing touchdown of the season and had a 13-yard TD pass to lead Mississippi State past Tulsa 28-26 in a game that was tense from the start.
Minutes after it ended, the teams became involved in a large brawl on the field, with players punching and kicking one another. Tulsa coach Greg Montgomery said sophomore safety Kendarin Ray, who was helped off the field after being at the bottom of a dogpile during a scrum, was treated for “some sort of concussion.”
“I’m not sure what exactly caused that,” said Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, who referred to the altercation as a “mosh pit.” “It was something before the game, too. We’ve never had any problem with that the entire season, so I can only guess without seeing the film.”
In a video posted from Mississippi State’s locker room, Malik Heath joked about kicking a Tulsa player in the facemask.
“The one thing I’ll say is our program, our guys, we’re a team that are going to stand up for each other and we’re going to battle,” Montgomery said. “We talk about faith, family, football, and family’s going to take care of family. We’re a team that has battled all year long. We battled again today. From that standpoint, our guys are going to continue to protect each other and go from there.”
American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said in a statement that the league will work with Tulsa to “conduct a thorough review of the altercation pursuant to our Conference Code of Sportsmanship process and expect that the university will respond accordingly.”
Jo’quavious Marks scored a rushing touchdown on the game’s first possession and Emmanuel Forbes returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown for the Bulldogs (4-7), who finished the season with a second straight win in a game played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in cold, rainy conditions.
Mississippi State’s 148 passing yards were its fewest of the season. Marks’ 72 rushing yards and his 28-yard run for the touchdown were the most in each category this season for the Bulldogs, whose 36-yard rushing average going into bowl play was the lowest in the FBS.
Forbes’ third-quarter touchdown was initially called back on an illegal blocking penalty, but the Big Ten Conference officiating crew reversed its ruling to a penalty on Tulsa.
Deneric Prince and Corey Taylor II scored rushing touchdowns, Zach Smith had a 15-yard TD pass to Keylon Stokes and Zack Long kicked field goals of 27 and 33 yards for Tulsa (6-3, No. 24 CFP), which erased four double-digit deficits this season.
Smith was 26 for 46 passing for 347 yards with two interceptions. Tulsa outgained Mississippi State in total offense 484 yards to 271, but the Bulldogs got 138 valuable kickoff return yards from Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin.
Tulsa pulled to within 21-19 with 12:30 left on Taylor’s 5-yard run, but Smith’s two-point conversion pass intended for Stokes was broken up in the end zone. Mississippi State answered with Rogers’ 13-yard throw to Griffin to go ahead 28-19.
Smith’s 15-yard scoring pass to Stokes came with 1:23 to play, and Tulsa failed to recover the ensuing onside kick. On the play, Mississippi State’s Erroll Thompson leveled Tulsa’s Ryan Nixon and was penalized 15 yards for taunting.
“It’s just dumb,” Leach said. “There was some stuff going back and forth during the course of the game. With any of it on our side, I don’t want to see it because I feel like I got shorted, what, 15 yards, 30 yards on deals where if we could keep our mouth shut, you know.”
During the brawl, Mississippi State’s De’Monte Russell, in street clothes beneath his jersey, ripped the helmet off Tulsa’s TieNeal Martin and appeared to land a punch to Martin’s head.
“Coach Leach addressed us as a team after the game, and we will handle that in-house,” Kobe Jones said. “It was emotional and a mishap. We have to be better and more disciplined.”
Tulsa: A team that was picked to finish ninth in the 11-team American Athletic Conference played in the league championship game, losing to Cincinnati on a last-second field goal. The Golden Hurricane will wait to see if they finish in the final AP Top 25 of the season for the first time since 2010.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs played in their school-record 11th consecutive bowl thanks to pandemic qualification exemptions. The four wins are the Bulldogs’ fewest since 2008, the last of Sylvester Croom’s five seasons coaching in Starkville.
Tulsa: Among the seniors who have committed to returning in 2021 are running back Shamari Brooks, fifth in program career rushing despite missing all of 2020 with an ACL injury, and free safety TieNeal Martin. Next season, the Golden Hurricane will visit Oklahoma State and Ohio State.
Mississippi State: For all of Leach’s Air Raid offenses at various stops, Rogers was his first true freshman quarterback. The Bulldogs’ Southeastern Conference home schedule should include visits by Alabama and Mississippi.