Interference Then & Now

Who in Mississippi doesn't have a Battle for the Golden Egg story of some kind? Time was that Ole Miss people had most of the good ones. MSU has evened things up in recent history.

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In the past 12 seasons, things stand at 6-6. The Bulldogs won the last three in a row, the first time that has happened for State since the early 1940s. Ole Miss owns the overall series record 60-42-6. Since 1927 when the Golden Egg became the symbol of the series, the Rebels lead 54-25-5.

One memorable win for the Rebels came in 1981. That was during the era the game was played in Jackson since at that time the stadium there was larger than either of the two on the respective campuses. Those were the years 1973-90.

Michael Harmon, Kosciusko native, Oxford resident, University of Mississippi police officer, surely remembers the 1981 game, won by Ole Miss 21-17.

That's because the wide receiver, who was a junior that season and a favorite target of senior quarterback John Fourcade, was as responsible as anyone for the Rebels' game-winning drive late in the contest.

Mississippi State had seven wins already and was headed to a bowl game. Ole Miss won its first three games of the season – Tulane, South Carolina, and Memphis – but hadn't gotten a victory since.

The Bulldogs were favored and were expected by most to win. But as the old saying goes, in rivalry games like this one, throw the records out.

"I haven't forgotten it," said Harmon when recently quizzed about that game 31 years ago. "I get reminded of it a lot when it's Ole Miss-Mississippi State week. But I remember it vividly."

Harmon wasn't always a Rebel. He grew up a Bulldog. His brother, Clarence, played for MSU and went on to a solid career in the NFL with the Redskins.

"I tell people when I was a little boy, I used to ring cowbells myself when my brother Clarence played there," Harmon said. "But when it was time to pick a school, I chose Ole Miss."

The Rebels were trying to rebuild their football program. Steve Sloan, hired at age 34 already having served as head coach at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech, had been called to Oxford as one of the bright, young coaches in America to try to get the Rebels back into the winner's circle.

Harmon wanted to be a part of it. His family, some of whom were supportive from the start, all finally came around.

"Some of my family was upset," he said. "Some were happy and said it's your decision. You're the one that's got to go to school and play. Once I got up here, all my family members came up here to all my games on campus and in Jackson."

On that Egg Bowl day in 1981, the two teams had battled to a two-touchdown tie until late.

"It was 14-14 and State drove down and kicked a field goal (to lead 17-14), a line drive that just barely went over the cross bar," Harmon recalled. "They kicked off to us, and our up-back ran it back to our 45-yard line. The first play (a pass from Fourcade), I dove and caught it. The second play was a deep out route, and I caught it. We were at State's 25-yard line."

Michael Oher and the Golden Egg in 2008
Bruce Newman

Time was not on the Rebels' side. Sloan called the play that put Ole Miss in position to win it, and the Bulldogs to have their hearts broken yet again. Actually only seconds remained in the game.

"He called one of my favorite routes, a post corner, and I told John in the huddle if he'd throw it to the corner of the end zone, I'd catch it or it would go out of bounds," Harmon said.

So as 62,000 watched, Fourcade sent one Harmon's way again. One important note to remember: Back then pass interference was a spot foul, not a 15-yard penalty like today. If it happened in the end zone, the ball was placed on the 1-yard line.

"He underthrew it, he got pressured," Harmon said of his quarterback, who threw the pass into the end zone. "I slowed up, and (MSU's) Kenny Johnson ran into the back of me. The referee called pass interference, we got it on the 1, and the next play John scored."

Actually the Rebels ran that play from the half yard line after the Bulldogs were penalized half the distance to the goal from the 1-yard line for unsportsmanlike conduct – for protesting the interference call.

On the play, Fourcade did indeed score the winning touchdown, faking a handoff and keeping it, hoisting the ball high above his head as half the stadium – the ones cloaked in red and blue – let out all their pent-up frustrations. Two seconds remained in the game, and following the kickoff by Ole Miss to MSU, time expired.

The Rebels and their fans weren't headed for a postseason bowl, but the winter was much warmer with the Golden Egg in Oxford.

"That was still a pretty good reward, anytime you beat Mississippi State," Harmon said. "It's always good for the students, fans, and alumni. And to have such a role in the victory, it was sweet."

Harmon still sees some of his old teammates from time to time.

"I see John (Fourcade) a lot. I see Ken Toler, Kinny Hooper, Andre ‘Hammerhead' Thomas, James Harbour, Timmy Moffett," he said. "I pretty much keep up with all those guys."

Sloan's era never produced the winning ways it was hoped for by Ole Miss people, although he was 3-2 against MSU. After the 1982 season, the Tennessee native and former Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback was let go. In those five years at Ole Miss, he never had a winning season. Only days after he was fired at Ole Miss, Sloan was hired as head coach at Duke.

For Harmon and his teammates, however, that one glorious afternoon in Jackson made up for at least a few of those other difficult losses. And he loves to recall that last drive to victory which led to the win over the arch rival.

"I don't mind talking about it, because it was a good day for Ole Miss," said Harmon, who went on to play for the NFL's Jets for a couple of seasons.

As for Mississippi State, it wasn't such a good day back in 1981 when Ole Miss brought the Golden Egg back to Oxford. Harmon said he knows that even this long after the fact, MSU folks think the interference was a bad call.

"State fans disagreed, but when the receiver slows up and you bump into him, that's pass interference when the ball's in the air," he said. "That's what the referee saw, too."

Harmon sums it up, "It was pass interference on Kenny Johnson in 1981, and it's still pass interference on Kenny Johnson in 2012."

As for tonight's game, Harmon knows it will be another war, another battle for the Golden Egg. But he also believes after three years of losing, Ole Miss is due a victory.

Said Harmon, "I feel like it's our time to win."

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