4 takeaways as Mississippi State football win in Armed Forces Bowl vs Tulsa ends in brawl

Tyler Horka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

FORT WORTH, Texas – In true 2020 form, it took until the last day of the year for Mississippi State football to record its longest rushing play of the season.

Jo’quavious Marks ran 28 yards into the end zone on the third play of scrimmage in front of a small, bundled-up crowd at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Thursday’s Armed Forces Bowl. The freshman running back’s touchdown was the only one of the first half between Mississippi State and No. 25 Tulsa.

Watch:Mississippi State-Tulsa football brawl at the end of the Armed Forces Bowl

Points were at a premium on a rainy day in which the temperature didn’t crack 40 degrees. Marks’ score put the Bulldogs ahead early, and they ultimately edged the Golden Hurricane 28-26 to win a bowl game for the first time since 2017 and finish the abnormal season with a 4-7 record. 

"It was very good that we were able to hold on and close it out," MSU coach Mike Leach said. "It was a very nasty day out there with swirling rain all over the place. It was tough for everyone to get into a rhythm. It was difficult for both teams. It was going to take persistence to win this game and I was proud of our young group and the persistence they showed." 

Then after the game there was a brawl involving many players from both teams.

Dec 31, 2020; Fort Worth, TX, USA; The Mississippi State Bulldogs and Tulsa Golden Hurricane teams fight after the game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Here are four takeaways from Mississippi State’s victory.

True freshman scorers

Mississippi State turned to true freshmen time and time again this season. The script stayed the same Thursday against Tulsa (6-3).

More:Mississippi State WR Malik Heath jokes on Instagram about kicking Tulsa player in brawl

The Bulldogs’ four touchdowns came from first-year players out of high school. Marks had the first, quarterback Will Rogers had the second on a 13-yard rush, cornerback Emmanuel Forbes had the third on a 90-yard interception return and freshman wide receiver Lideatrick "Tulu" Griffin had the fourth on a 13-yard reception. 

"We have some young guys that are enthusiastic and developing into gritty guys," Leach said. 

Forbes leads the SEC in interceptions and is tied for third nationally with five. He brought three of them back for touchdowns. 

Mississippi State running back Jo'Quavious Marks (21) runs past Tulsa safety Kendarin Ray (1) for a touchdown during the first half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

Marks turned into a starter when senior Kylin Hill opted out after the first three games. Rogers turned into a starter when senior K.J. Costello went down with an injury against Alabama in the fifth game. Forbes took over as a starter after the third game as well.

All three were huge contributors for a Mississippi State team that was one of the youngest in the country.

"You could tell guys were ready and things were starting to click," Rogers said. "I am really excited about things where they are heading into the future."

X-factor defensive players

Mississippi State wasn’t afraid to use the full extent of its roster. A pair of Bulldogs who fans haven’t heard their names called often this year came up big on back-to-back first-half possessions.

Redshirt junior defensive back Jay Jimison made a touchdown-saving pass deflection on first-and-goal on the first drive. Tulsa ultimately settled for a field goal.

Report card:Grading Mike Leach, Mississippi State in Armed Forces Bowl

Junior defensive end Sherman Timbs sacked Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith on third down on the second drive. Again, Tulsa took three points.

The Golden Hurricane could have taken the lead by scoring a touchdown on one of the drives and settling for a field goal on the other. Instead, State stopped the opposing offense to maintain its lead.

Junior linebacker Tyrus Wheat kept points off the board with an interception late in the fourth quarter. He picked off Smith on third-and-goal to give Mississippi State the ball back leading 28-19 with less than four minutes remaining. 

"We developed a little bit of an inconsistency (defensively) today, but the turnovers were there to make it good," Leach said. "And this may be the best defense I've started out with."

Finding his groove

Freshman wide receiver Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin has not been much of a factor offensively for Mississippi State this season. He went into Thursday’s game with eight catches for 44 yards.

Griffin got his hands on the ball multiple times in the kick return game, though, and he made the most of his opportunities there. He returned the opening kickoff 53 yards into Tulsa territory. Marks scored three plays later.

More:How Twitter reacted to the Mississippi State football brawl vs Tulsa in Armed Forces Bowl

Griffin returned another first-half kick into Tulsa territory, too, but it was called back for holding on Timbs. He did it again in the second half on a 44-yard return to the Tulsa 39, and that one counted.

Overall, Griffin accumulated 138 kick return yards. Griffin was a game-changer on special teams in a game in which traditional offense was hard to come by given the conditions.

Griffin made even more of an impact in the fourth quarter. He caught the first touchdown pass of his career on a 13-yard back-corner post to extend Mississippi State's lead to 28-19 with 8:01 left. He had two catches for 17 yards. 

"It gives him some confidence heading into next season and a huge step for him," junior wide receiver Austin Williams said. "He will continue to build on it in spring ball and some workouts under his belt." 

Tough day for MSU offense

Mississippi State held a lead for most of the game, but that doesn’t mean it was a pretty performance in all three phases. The Bulldogs’ offense, as it had many times this season, had a tough time moving the ball.

The Bulldogs finished with 271 total yards. Tulsa had 484. An MSU offense predicated on throwing the ball only had 99 passing yards at the end of the third quarter.

Mississippi State was forced to be a bit more balanced because of the weather, and its ground game was more effective than the passing game. Freshman running backs Marks and Dillon Johnson combined for 129 yards on 6.1 yards per carry.

"We thought they were going to play a little more man, and they played more drop eight and we saw some good run boxes and we felt confident with the offensive line who played their butts off," Leach said. "If we can take five on first and second down we are definitely going to do that."

Jaden Walley, an All-SEC Freshman Team selection, didn’t get involved early but he made an impact late. He finished with four receptions for 27 yards. His third and fourth catches were crucial conversions on the drive Griffin scored. 

Contact Tyler Horka at thorka@gannett.com. Follow @tbhorka on Twitter.