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By DANNY P. SMITH
It was a play that made a special teams player like Mississippi State's Emmanuel Gatling proud.
Even though Gatling has a history of stopping opposing kick returners, he understands the impact of what the 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from teammate Leon Berry meant to the Bulldogs during Saturday's 49-16 victory against the Alcorn State Braves.
Gatling said big plays are what the unit is all about.
"With him returning that, it gave confidence with all special teams," Gatling said. "Whether you are on offense or defense with special teams you think score. By him scoring, we are realizing our goal."
MSU was able to pad a first-half lead with Berry's score.
The Bulldogs held a two-possession lead against the Braves at 28-16 until Berry broke loose on the play to extend the lead to 35-16.
"The kickoff return was huge and it got us a little momentum back before halftime," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I thought we were close on a couple of the first ones, but just fell off on some blocks at the last second. It was a great job of blocking and Leon made a nice run. It looked like he was going to be knocked out of bounds, but did a nice job along the sideline of staying in bounds and making a big play."
Berry said the coaches were wanting the special teams to concentrate on setting up the offense with good field position.
The Bulldogs did much more than that with the touchdown with 1:22 left in the first half.
"Everybody came out, did their job and executed what we do," Berry said. "I just had to trust that I could hit it and that's what we did."
A key block by Chris Hughes was enough to spring Berry to pay dirt.
"I was thanking him hard on that," Berry said. "He came and hugged me in the end zone, but I told him that I saw your block."
It was Berry's second career touchdown on a kickoff. His other kick return for a score was an 89-yard effort last season against Georgia Tech.
The former East Mississippi Community College player has gotten respect from his teammates for his return ability.
"He was probably one of the best in the country last season in returning kicks," fellow receiver
and kick returner Chad Bumphis said. "It was good to see him get that one under his belt."
Berry also recorded a career-high 97 yards receiving on three catches. He upped his season totals to eight receptions for 188 yards.
It also gave him and the rest of the team what he called "a big confidence boost."
"The coaches said last week we were going to throw the ball," Berry said. "All week we caught the ball well and we were told we were going to come out throwing. That's what we did."