It started with a pregame skirmish. Then, it ended in a massive brawl.
In between the two battles, Tulsa and Mississippi State fought on the football field in Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, TX. The Golden Hurricane (6-3, 6-0 AAC) could not mount a comeback against the Bulldogs (4-7, 3-7 SEC), finishing their highly successful 2020 campaign in a rough manne.
The Golden Hurricane maintained their identity as a standout defense, even without Bednarik Award winner Zaven Collins lining up on their side. The only points Tulsa allowed of the first half originated from a 28-yard touchdown run by Jo’quavious Marks on the third play from scrimmage. Even with the defensive success, Tulsa failed to generate much on the offensive end. Four trips to Mississippi State territory on four first half possessions resulted in a punt, a turnover on downs, and a pair of short field goals. At the break, the Bulldogs clung on to a 7-6 advantage in the rainy conditions of Fort Worth.
Receiving the ball at halftime seemed to be a potential turning point for a Golden Hurricane team looking for their first lead of the contest. Instead, a three-and-out ensued and Mississippi State’s offense capitalized with a 5 minute drive culminating in an 11-yard touchdown scramble by quarterback Will Rogers.
Tulsa, continuing to remain one step behind, quickly fired back with a touchdown drive led by senior quarterback Zach Smith. But it was his halfback Deneric Prince who put on the finishing efforts to make it 14-13. Tulsa’s defense subsequently recorded a turnover on downs to allow the Golden Hurricane the necessary momentum to gain their first lead.
But upon reaching a 1st and 10 in Bulldog territory, Smith misplaced a deep throw into the hands of SEC All-Freshman selection Emmanuel Forbes. The cornerback was armed with a slew of blockers in front of him, but it was his cut across the field which allowed him to sprint into the end zone 90 yards untouched.
Even after facing the adversity from ht pick six, Tulsa received a rare special teams gift. Mississippi State punter Tucker Day booted a low ball which was fielded by Tulsa roughly around the line of scrimmage. The advantageous field position set up another Golden Hurricane touchdown, courtesy of running back Corey Taylor II. Unfortunately for them, a failed 2-point conversion kept Mississippi State ahead 21-19 with 12:30 remaining.
This Mississippi State punt did not go as planned pic.twitter.com/gvHsIsFwqo— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) December 31, 2020
When Tulsa’s defense needed a clutch stop, Rogers wouldn’t allow it. The Golden Hurricane held the freshman quarterback to 148 passing yards — an incredibly low mark for a Mike Leach offense — but 49 of those yards were obtained on a key go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. Rogers delivered a dime to Lideatrick Griffin in the end zone to hand Mississippi State a critical two-score lead.
Tulsa managed to score again, but not as quickly as Philip Montgomery and the coaching staff hoped. Smith threw his second interception of the day well into Mississippi State territory, but the defense forced a three-and-out while eating up its timeouts to qualify for a shot at redemption. With under 90 seconds remaining, Smith completed a 15-yard touchdown to Keylon Stokes to cap off a season-high 347 yards passing in spite of the wet field conditions. Suddenly, unruliness took over the Armed Forces Bowl with the score at 28-26.
A brewing sense of disdain was already building up from the pregame scuffle, but an inciting incident happened late to spark the postgame brawl. Following Tulsa’s touchdown, the Golden Hurricane lined up for an onside kick. Mississippi State recovered the kick after initially muffing it, but Tulsa took offense to a hit that happened away from the play. Bulldogs’ star outside linebacker Erroll Thompson laid out Tulsa wide receiver JuanCarlos Santana with a devastating blow. Santana remained on the ground while Thompson stood over his body, causing the referee to issue an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Time passes, Rogers takes the final knee for the Bulldogs, and Mike Leach is subject to a Gatorade shower. Everything appears peaceful during the first few seconds of the postgame handshakes, but suddenly words are clearly exchanged between the two programs. Then, lines are crossed. Punches are thrown, pushes are exchanged, and coaches can no longer hold all the players back. Suddenly, punches, kicks, towel whips, helmet dislodging, and other unfriendly displays occur. After the climax, the teams separated and eventually headed to the locker rooms.
For a full video breakdown of the postgame brawl, Twitter user @Jomboy_ hits the nail on the head with the analysis:
Mississippi State and Tulsa Brawl after Bowl Game, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/a5KAwci4J4— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) December 31, 2020
Brawl aside, it was an unfortunate loss for a Golden Hurricane squad which finished undefeated in regular season conference play, but narrowly lost their other three contests. Still, Tulsa took a major leap forward in 2020 with College Football Playoff and AP Poll rankings for a good portion of the season while qualifying for its first bowl since 2016.
While the ranking likely disappears when the final poll is released in January, 2020 will remain a memorable year for a gritty Tulsa team that never gave up — a defensive-minded unit which overcame double-digit deficits on a weekly basis to qualify for a conference title game and brought winning football back to the plains.