Wednesday Evening Bulldog Football Notebook

Tired as he was J.C. Brignone admits there was no rest for this weary Bulldog after that agonizing ending to the Arkansas game. "It hurts," he said. "I couldn't sleep Saturday night." Nor could many more Mississippi State folk after the double-overtime loss.

Of course few were as directly involved as the senior center in a fourth-down mixup at the line of scrimmage resulting in a premature snap, and thus lack of both protection and targets. The resulting sack left Mississippi State feeling the frustration of one that got away.

"Just a miscommunication and we're all trying to make a play to win," Brignone said. "When people get on different pages bad things happen." Thing is, the Bulldogs—particularly a seasoned offensive line—figured to have such mistakes behind them by now. Yet the other thing is…such a painful reminder could serve everyone well this weekend.

This regular season-end, that is. Because this Saturday evening in Oxford there is no MSU margin for such errors if the Bulldogs are to take care of their ultimate business. Or as Brignone said, "It was a pretty tough loss the other night so we want to get a big-time win here and end the regular season with a win. And it will be a big win for my senior season."

That is the MSU mindset for 2010's renewal of the Battle for the Golden Egg (6:00, ESPNU). Though the 7-4 Bulldogs have assurance of one more football game, and their seniors are delighted to cap careers with a bowl trip…this matters more in the personal picture. Never mind that the rivals are heading in very different directions after Saturday, said Brignone.

"If you can't get up for this game, then you're not a real Bulldog. This is the Egg Bowl game, no matter if we have a bowl game or it's our last game. You know, last year we were 4-7 going in, and they're in the same position we were. No matter what we have to get up for this game. This is what our season is for."

The senior center certainly understands what this weekend can mean for a team that isn't bowl-bound. After all, just last year a 4-7 State squad vented a whole season's frustrations with an upset of #25 Ole Miss on the home field. That, along with realization that something good was underway with Dan Mullen in charge, made being home for 2009 holidays more bearable.

Now almost everything is totally turned around, right down to the visiting team's ranking and the host squad's record. Which naturally the Bulldogs are reminded of daily, so as to prevent coincidence from turning into repetition and muting some of the breakout season's joy.

"We just need to take this not as another game but as the ending game for us," Brignone said. "The bowl game is a championship, and ending factor for a great season, but as everybody knows it can't be a great season losing to Ole Miss."

It can, however, put a disastrous end on a bad season and here too Brignone can apply his own experience. He was the starting center for the 2008 team that went to Oxford looking to salvage some rivalry pride from a lost year…and was crushed 45-0.

"I was part of that, and in my career that's the worst feeling game I've ever been a part of," he said. Even worse was the next day's news that the coach who signed Brignone was finished. That only deepened the locker room gloom, even guilt, he said, because "Coaches don't lose their job because they can't coach usually, it's because players aren't doing their jobs." Though, Brignone added, a rivalry game rout is often the tipping point in tenures.

Yet that crushing setback proved the start of something better as it brought Dan Mullen to town. And from his first public appearance the new coach made the State-Ole Miss (even if he wouldn't use the name) rivalry his first-year focus. Whether or not that contributed to his winning the first round with the Rebels, it certainly has added more spice to a series that has been historically hot enough.

"It's definitely big change from what we used to do," Brignone said. "With Coach Croom we always took it seriously but Coach Mullen has taken the next step. Which makes it a lot more fun, too, you get things that make it not more than just a football game but a true rivalry." Of course a true rivalry means competition and State held up their part last November with the 41-27 win.

So by that measure the six-year trend of the home team winning would only seem to make sense, right? Welllll, Brignone and the Bulldogs aren't prepared to go THAT far with things. Especially not this year and not this senior class, which has a chance to score a third Egg Bowl victory.

"Being a Bulldog five years, this is something I take deep down to heart. I don't like losing for one thing, and to lose to Ole Miss is another thing." Besides, there are still some lingering emotions from 2008 these upperclassmen would like to banish, even if in the long term it has proven a kick-start to current success.

"Games like that make you a better player," Brignone said. "I've grown from that. And you keep it in the back of your head because it teaches you how fast things can flip. Two years ago the worst feeling in the world was leaving Oxford like that, and if I have anything to do with it I'll never leave like that again."

Interestingly, there were no such animosities as Brignone grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In fact he was surrounded by Ole Miss fans including some of his best friends; and for that matter the locals leaned towards LSU football anyway. "I didn't have too much of a favorite, I rooted for the Mississippi schools," he said. "But I knew the rivalry." Which he said assumed a very different dimension once recruiting began and he discovered what he calls the differences between the schools and the programs and the people.

Not so much the coaches, he added, since that has changed for both teams during his career. "It's just the fact of being a Bulldog now and really bleeding maroon and white is what makes it the game. Now it's really deep into understanding why we don't get along, the different types of people and environment. If you went to Mississippi State or Ole Miss (yep, he slipped and said it) you understand the difference." Though he also notes that from his perspective things have become even more intense for State with the brash young boss.

"Our fans have grown towards us and Coach Mullen, that's made it better." And about that ‘school up north' label… "I'm sure they have a name for us now! If it gets corny, they'll probably get cornier!"

Getting past the bombast though, there is the matter of a real game to be played and genuine opponents to match up with. The biggest, no pun intended, is directly ahead of center Brignone and his three-guard rotation, in the form of two mammoth bodies. Brignone knows one of them especially well.

"Jerrell Powe and I have had some big time battles, I don't think he likes me and I really don't care! My biggest game is taking care of him. He's supposed to be a first round draft guy. If he's that and I take care of him that should show what I am." Tall talk, but then Brignone does have some previous success in his account from last November when Bulldog backs Anthony Dixon and Chris Relf followed their blockers for 317 rushing yards.

"I think we all five of us (linemen) graded out champions," Brignone said. "I was high 80s, low 90s, so it was definitely one of my best games." But then the Rebel front hasn't gotten any smaller so even bigger efforts will be needed in the rematch. Uniform efforts, too, since in their last two losses Bulldog blocking has reverted to some old issues with one man, and a different one each time, getting out-of-synch with the rest. Alabama and Arkansas made State pay. This one has to be done right each time, every time.

For that matter even a successful Saturday will leave the Bulldogs not entirely satisfied as the review the complete 2010 season. Having a breakout year is a great thing and a great way to cap a career, but…

"We can see Coach Mullen and the staff have us rolling, we've been in every game this year," Brignone said. "Two games we should have won, and two other games I just don't think we were in mentally. I think we should be 11-0."

But then again, this weekend brings the one game that matches any other eleven in magnitude, at least to this old Dog as he makes one final trip to Oxford. In good company, he hopes.

"And we need our fans behind us ever game, especially this one."

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