MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dak Prescott delivered a performance that would have made his mother proud.
Prescott threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores Tuesday as Mississippi State trounced Rice 44-7 in the most one-sided Liberty Bowl victory in the game’s 55-year history. The sophomore quarterback delivered arguably the finest performance of his career less than two months after his mother, Peggy, died of cancer.
“It’s really just been about Mississippi State University and this football team comforting me, being there for me and just helping me and making what I would say is the hardest thing in my life easier,” Prescott said.
Mississippi State (7-6) wrapped up its fourth straight winning season and prevented Rice (10-4) from winning bowl games in back-to-back years for the first time. All of Mississippi State’s losses this season came against teams currently in the Top 25: No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 14 LSU, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 3 Alabama.
The Bulldogs became bowl eligible by closing the regular season with consecutive overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss. This marks the first time since 1974 that Mississippi State has closed a season with three straight wins.
“They stuck together,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “They battled. They fought. They fought through unbelievable injuries and adversity throughout the year.”
Nobody faced more adversity than Prescott, who set a Liberty Bowl record by accounting for five touchdowns. Prescott was 17 of 28 for 283 yards passing and also ran for 78 yards on 14 carries.
Prescott’s performance delighted a partisan crowd of 57,846 and capped a triumphant late-season performance amid personal tragedy for the sophomore quarterback. Prescott came off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead Mississippi State to a 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss last month that earned the Bulldogs a bowl bid. .
Although Prescott and senior Tyler Russell had shared quarterback duties throughout the regular season, Prescott had the job to himself in the Liberty Bowl while Russell recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Prescott responded better than anyone could have reasonably imagined.
Prescott thanked his teammates, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, university President Mark Keenum and the entire Mississippi State community for sticking with him and helping him persevere.
“It just allows me to go out there and just play football in peace and be at ease,” Prescott said.
Prescott wasn’t Mississippi State’s only star on a night when the Bulldogs outgained Rice 533-145 and scored the game’s final 44 points.
Mississippi State’s Jameon Lewis caught nine passes for 220 yards to break the Liberty Bowl receiving record held by Houston’s Vincent Marshall, who had 201 yards in a 44-36 loss to South Carolina in 2006. Lewis also set the school single-game record.
“When he has the ball in his hands, he’s special,” Mullen said.
The Bulldogs also played dominant defense.
Rice had won the Conference USA title — its first outright league championship of any kind since 1957 — by relying on a rushing attack that was ranked 16th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Rice gained only 61 yards rushing — 179 below its season average — on 32 carries against Mississippi State. Charles Ross, who entered the day having rushed for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, was held to 28 yards on 10 carries.
“We knew coming into this game we were going to have to play our best to win it,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “We didn’t.”
Rice took an early lead on Ross’ 1-yard touchdown run, but Mississippi State took control by reaching the end zone on six of its next seven possessions. Prescott threw first-half touchdown passes to LaDarius Perkins, Malcolm Johnson and Artimus Samuel before running for two scores in the third quarter.
The Liberty Bowl is about a three-hour drive from Mississippi State’s campus, and the proximity created a home-game atmosphere for the Bulldogs. At least 90 percent of the fans appeared to be wearing Mississippi State maroon.