By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Nick Fitzgerald ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns to lead Mississippi State over UMass 34-23 on Saturday.
No. 21 Mississippi State (7-2, CFP No. 16) trailed 20-13 at halftime, but scored two quick touchdowns in the third quarter to take a 27-20 advantage. UMass pulled within 27-23 on a short field goal in the fourth quarter, but couldn't move the ball in the final minutes.
It was a much closer-than-expected outcome for the Bulldogs, who were 31-point favorites coming into the game. Aeris Williams added 114 yards rushing on 24 carries.
UMass (2-7) had the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to drive for the go-ahead score, but went three-and-out. Mississippi State's Deddrick Thomas returned the ensuing punt 83 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
Mississippi State looked like it might win easily in the opening minutes after J.T. Gray picked off a UMass pass and took it back 58 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
But the Bulldogs' offense never looked comfortable in the first half and an ill-advised pass by Fitzgerald during the second quarter went straight to UMass' Isaiah Rodgers, who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, the Minutemen had a 13-10 lead.
UMass built a 20-13 advantage by halftime after a 69-yard touchdown pass from Ross Comis to Andy Isabella. Comis, who was starting just his second game of the season because of an injury to starter Andrew Ford, threw for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
UMass: The Minutemen, who lost to Tennessee 17-13 in September, provided tough competition for an SEC opponent for the second time this year. The first half was something to savor for UMass, but Mississippi State eventually proved too much to handle. Isabella had a huge game, catching seven passes for 158 yards and a touchdown.
Mississippi St: The Bulldogs rallied for the win, but the performance didn't exactly inspire confidence heading into a matchup with No. 1 Alabama next week. Fitzgerald is one of the nation's best running QBs, but his lack of consistency when throwing is troubling. It's almost certain the Crimson Tide will try to make Fitzgerald beat them through the air.
UMass hosts Maine next Saturday.
Mississippi State hosts No. 1 Alabama next Saturday.
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