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Monday’s football: Bulldogs block field goal to win

Associated Press

St. Petersburg, Fla. — Mississippi State’s sideline erupted in celebration, relieved to escape with a victory to end a challenging season.

Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in another strong performance by the dual-threat quarterback; however, the heavily favored Bulldogs had to block a field goal in the closing seconds to hold off Miami (Ohio), 17-16, in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Monday.

“Great game. Not exactly how we drew it up,” coach Dan Mullen said after defensive tackle Nelson Adams got a hand on Nick Dowd’s potential winning kick that would have helped Miami finish a stunning turnaround from a 0-6 start to the season to a winning record.

Instead, both Mississippi State (6-7) and Miami (6-7), which won six straight games to become bowl eligible, finished with losing marks.

“You know what, it’s been an interesting year. We’ve battled. Throughout the year we’ve lost some tough games on the final play of the game,” Mullen said. “I told the guys in the locker room afterward, we’re here because we didn’t give up. We found a way to go make that final play. Even though we missed a lot of opportunities, we made the final play when it mattered.”

Fitzgerald, who led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, scored on runs of 2 and 44 yards on the way to his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. The redshirt sophomore also completed 13 of 26 passes for 126 yards.

Gus Ragland threw for 257 yards and two TDs for Miami. He also threw his first interception of the season early in the fourth quarter, and Mississippi State turned the mistake into a 36-yard field goal that put the Bulldogs ahead with 12:03 remaining.

“We were one play ahead of them for most of the game, if not more than one, but they were one play ahead of us at the end,” Miami coach Chuck Martin said. “We had opportunities. When you look at it, it didn’t need to come down to that last kick, but it did. They made one more play than us. Tough way to end. That’s sports, and that’s competition.”

The RedHawks drove the ball deep into Bulldogs territory on their next two possessions, turning the ball over on downs at the Mississippi State 32 midway through the fourth quarter and reaching the 17 before Dowd had his kick blocked with 5 seconds remaining.

James Gardner and Ryan Smith caught TD passes for Miami, which also had an extra-point blocked in the opening half.

“We had noticed on film that the kicker kind of did line drives. All that was going through my head was get your hands up as quick as you can,” Adams said. “It’s been a tough year for us.

“The only thing going through my mind was make a play, make something happen, and that’s what I did.”

Miami became the first team in NCAA history to start 0-6 and finish the regular season 6-6. The senior class that entered school in 2013 had a 5-37 record before the RedHawks began their six-game winning streak in mid-October. “They should put statues of those guys outside of our stadium,” Ragland said.

Independence Bowl

N.C. State 41, Vanderbilt 17: At Shreveport, La., Jaylen Samuels caught three touchdown passes from Ryan Finley, Nyheim Hines returned a kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown and N.C. State won the Independence Bowl.

N.C. State (7-6) won three of its final four games to finish over .500. Vanderbilt (6-7) had momentum thanks to surprising wins over Mississippi and Tennessee to end the regular season.

UConn fires coach

Connecticut fired football coach Bob Diaco after his third losing season, choosing to cut ties rather than allow Diaco to rebuild a struggling offense.

Diaco will be relieved of his duties effective Jan. 2, university officials said. The move was surprising in its timing a month after the Huskies season ended but it made financial sense for the university. The buyout on Diaco’s contract drops from $5 million to $3.4 million after Jan. 1.

“I believe a new leader for our program and student-athletes is needed to build long-term success,” athletic director David Benedict said.

The Huskies were 11-26 under Diaco in three seasons, including 3-9 this syear.