STARKVILLE, Miss. — LaDarius Perkins gave a quick shake and then accelerated through a gigantic hole at the line of scrimmage.
After an evening of frustration, the Mississippi State running back’s persistence finally paid off. The rest of the Bulldogs soon followed his lead.
Perkins’ 64-yard touchdown run in the third quarter sparked a second-half surge as No. 15 Mississippi State beat Middle Tennessee 45-3 on Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium.
“It opened things up for us,” Perkins said. “I made a couple good cuts and took it to the house.”
Mississippi State led just 10-3 at halftime and was struggling to move the ball in the third quarter before Perkins’ breakthrough touchdown run. It was the first of three Bulldogs touchdowns in the decisive third quarter.
Perkins finished with 125 yards rushing on 20 carries. He’s one of two running backs in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have a rushing touchdown in every game this season.
And he was one of many Bulldogs who had a big night.
Tyler Russell completed 17 of 21 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns while Johnthan Banks tied a school record with his 16th career interception. Chris Smith caught a career-high seven passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs (7-0) have won nine straight, dating to last season. Their latest victory set up an undefeated conference showdown at No. 1 Alabama next weekend.
“For us, it’s the position we want to be in,” fourth-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “When I took this job, when we took over this program, these were exactly the kind of games we wanted to be in.”
Middle Tennessee (4-3) isn’t a big-name program, but it certainly had Mississippi State’s attention after crushing ACC-member Georgia Tech by three touchdowns on Sept. 29.
But the Blue Raiders couldn’t muster much of a challenge on Saturday.
The Bulldogs were sharp on their first drive, moving 74 yards on 14 plays, capped by Russell’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Smith for the 7-0 lead. They pushed that advantage to 10-0 later in the first quarter on a 32-yard field goal by Devon Bell.
But the offense bogged down in the second quarter and Middle Tennessee was able to cut MSU’s lead to 10-3 after a 32-yard field goal by Carlos Lopez.
Mississippi State’s struggles continued until midway through the third quarter, when Perkins burst through the line for the 64-yard score. It was the longest touchdown run of his career, and it sparked the Bulldogs to what turned into an easy victory.
Banks picked off a pass from Logan Kilgore in the third quarter and returned it to the MTSU 25-yard line. The interception tied the school mark set by Walt Harris. Banks has four interceptions this season.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior injured his left knee after the play and didn’t return. There were a few nervous moments from the crowd as trainers looked at the injury, but fans broke into applause after he walked off the field without help.
Banks said after the game that he was “fine.”
“It was scary, but I’ll be all right,” he said.
Mississippi State was playing so well at that point, there was no need for Banks. Russell hit Smith on an 11-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive and later found Robert Johnson for a 23-yard score to stretch the Bulldogs’ lead to 31-3 by the end of the third quarter.
Russell continued his string of efficient performances. The junior has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only one interception this season. He had nearly as many touchdown passes (three) as incompletions (four) on Saturday.
“We started fast, then got sloppy, then picked it up,” Russell said. “We know we’ve got to play for four quarters against Alabama.”
Middle Tennessee was playing its first game without injured running back Benny Cunningham, who averaged 120 yards rushing and had scored 11 touchdowns through five games. Without him, the Blue Raiders couldn’t reach the end zone. They were outgained 446-305.
Kilgore completed 16 of 25 passes for 159 yards and one interception.
“I loved the effort,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “I told the guys afterwards that I thought they competed their tails off to the very end. We were just outmanned at times.”
Jordan Parker had 66 yards rushing for Middle Tennessee, which is 6-37 against teams from the six BCS conferences.