Thomas big time: Punt return helps Bulldogs win

Deddrick Thomas returns a punt against UMass on Saturday

Deddrick Thomas was nowhere near the top of Mississippi State’s depth chart at punt returner when this season began.

Injuries have forced the Bulldogs’ hands though, so on Saturday, Thomas returned punts for the first-ever time at MSU. It’s safe to say now he might get the opportunity to return a few more.

Thomas’ 83-yard punt return for a touchdown with just 5 minutes left to play was the nail in UMass’ coffin as the Bulldogs survived an upset scare from the Minutemen with a 34-23 victory.

For much of Saturday, a win for MSU looked nowhere near like a sure thing. Thomas changed all that in the blink of an eye as he fielded the critical punt at the Mississippi State 17-yard line, broke a tackle, found some space and took it all the way to the end zone.

“I saw the coverage team going to the other side (of the field) and wanted to run away from them,” Thomas said. “After I broke the tackle, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gone.”

It was the first MSU punt return for a touchdown in two years and tied for the fifth-longest punt return in school history. More than all that, it rescued the Bulldogs from what had the potential to be an embarrassing, unexpected loss.

For the first two quarters on Saturday, UMass (2-7) handled Mississippi State (7-2). The Minutemen built a 20-13 lead by halftime and out-gained the Bulldogs in total yardage 212-154 in the process.

“I don’t know what it was,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said of his team’s slow start. “They are 18-to-22-year-old kids.

“We came out and didn’t perform to our standards in that first half.”

Despite MSU safety J.T. Gray intercepting a UMass pass and returning it 58 yards for a score on the Minutemen’s first drive of the game, the first half belonged to UMass. Kicker Logan Laurent nailed a pair of field goals for the Minutemen – a 23-yarder and a 48-yarder – and UMass got a pair of touchdowns on big plays.

Isaiah Rodgers gave the Minutemen their own pick-six in the second quarter when he intercepted MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and returned it 29 yards. Later in the period, Andy Isabella hauled in a 69-yard touchdown reception from Ross Comis.

With that, MSU went to the locker room down 20-13.

“We came in and made some mistakes that you can’t make,” Mullen said. “We turned the ball over. We gave up explosive plays and penalties at critical moments during the game that killed us.

“It happens for kids sometimes, but they buckled down for the second half.”

The Bulldogs came out firing on all cylinders in the third quarter. MSU put together an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive on the period’s first possession to tie the game at 20-all.

Fitzgerald gave the Bulldogs the points with an 8-yard touchdown run.

Fitzgerald finished the game with 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He also passed for 139 yards, but had two interceptions.

Fitzgerald’s second touchdown run came later in the third quarter to give State a 27-20 lead. Again, the Bulldogs put together a long drive, going 79 yards on 12 plays before Fitzgerald ran the football into the end zone from 10 yards out.

UMass crept closer in the fourth quarter. With 8:18 to play, Laurent kicked his third field goal of the game, this one a 26-yarder, to cut MSU’s lead to 27-23. The Minutemen then grabbed all the momentum when their defense forced a quick MSU three-and-out.

However, UMass couldn’t capitalize and recapture the lead. Rather than close out the upset, the Minutemen had a three-and-out of their own, then punted to Thomas, who took it to the house and put the game on ice for the Bulldogs.

Thomas said nothing special was going through his mind prior to the return. In fact, his goal was simple.

“Catch the ball,” Thomas said. “That was the whole focus. Just catch the ball.”

Luckily for the Bulldogs, Thomas accomplished his mission and had the time to do a little more too. It might have earned Thomas a more regular gig at punt returner with so many Bulldogs battling injuries.

Whether or not Thomas gets to return more punts, his ability to do so certainly saved MSU on Saturday.

“We didn’t come in fired up, we didn’t come out executing the way we needed to, but I’m glad it’s over,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m glad to be 7-2.”