After, that is, another season successfully completed by defeating the arch-rival Rebels. State wrapped up Mullen's second year at 8-4, 4-4 SEC, and now await official assignment to their post-season destination. Which most everyone expects to be the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on December 31, though athletic director Scott Stricklin said in the post-game interview room that it will be next Sunday before any such formal announcement can be made. That didn't stop Chick-Fil-A Bowl representative Jack D'Arcy from attending the post-game press conference and even asking the final question.
Ole Miss ends 4-8, 1-7 SEC, and after a second-straight loss in the Egg Bowl series. Not only did the Bulldogs post the first consecutive wins in the rivalry since 2003-04, they also scored the first road win by either rival since '03. They also took State's first win in Oxford in a dozen years.
Yet the Bulldogs couldn't relax, much less celebrate, until the literal last minute. Down 31-9 going into the final period, the Rebels roused themselves for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns at 13:22 and 4:21 and got the ball back with 2:30 remaining to manufacture a miracle. The Dog defense made sure it didn't happen, as cornerback Corey Broomfield chased down Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli at his 23-yard line and other Bulldogs swarmed to finish him off at 0:59.
Two kneel-downs by Chris Relf and it was settled, as brief relief turned into extended celebrating with the Golden Egg paraded to State fan sections at opposite ends of the field.
When a local television reporter asked offensive guard Quentin Saulsberry how it felt to win back the Egg, the junior corrected her. "I mean, we didn't get it back, we just kept it!" Thanks in no small part to the grinding labors of Saulsberry and line-mates, who dealt with a stacked deck—or at least, stacked defensive front—all evening. As expected the Rebels invested everything in containing State's ground game, and to some extent they did. The Bulldogs did not get their trademark power-rushing attack going often or for long, partly from that defensive mismatch and partly because Relf and TB Vick Ballard had minor injuries.
But with Ole Miss crowding the front, Relf & Co. adapted and took the ball outside for enough gains by TB LaDarius Perkins to loosen the middle just enough. The result was 210 rushing yards on 50 carries; 98 by Perkins and 66 by Relf. Ballard did muster 43 net yards and the only MSU running touchdown, which also gave the junior the MSU season record with 17 touchdowns; a mark set in 1952.
Much more impressive was how Relf accepted the implicit challenge to try to win a game with his arm. He answered with 13-of-20 throwing for a career-best 288 yards and three touchdowns. One of his passes was picked that proved as good as a punt. Relf's best target? Perkins, who converted three short throws into 140 yards of gain and touchdowns of 33 and 36 yards in a second quarter that changed everything. WR Chris Smith had the other scoring catch, of 15 yards, which redeemed his earlier fumble after a grab.
In all State managed 498 yards on 70 plays and even had the ball a bit longer; all those numbers a remarkable reversal of the usual Bulldog offensive approach. This game, they went for big plays.
So did Ole Miss, but they were fewer and farther between. After converting Smith's fumble into a fast touchdown, the Rebels had only a field goal until the fourth quarter by which time they'd fallen a little too far behind. Even their first score was dimmed by a blocked PAT, and that one point loomed large by the final minutes.
Masoli, the former Oregon triggerman, had a good evening on the stat sheet; 24-of-44 for 261 yards, a touchdown, and one interception. But his fancy footwork rarely showed as Masoli was hemmed-in for just 12 net yards on 11 rushes with three sacks. Nor did Rebel runners Brandon Bolen (12, 45, 1 TD) or Jeff Scott (6, 12, 1) get much going. The SEC's second-best rushing offense managed only 65 ground yards, less than two per attempt.
Mississippi State won the toss and deferred, with the Rebels opening on their 25 yards. Masoli's third down out route could have been picked by S Emmanuel Gatling, and the Rebel punt was fair-caught at State's 29. Relf began with a throw, to Ballard for 13 yards. The next time he tossed it was 3rd-and-11 and he overthrew Brandon Heavens across midfield. Heath Hutchins' punt was low for 38 yards.
Another Rebel three-and-out gave the Bulldogs possession at their 26, and they too had just three snaps as Ballard was stood up on 3rd-and-1. This Hutchins punt cleared the returner and was downed on the Ole Miss nine. Masoli quickly got his side out of the hole with a 13-yard throw to Markeith Summers, but on 3rd-and-8 Summers stepped out of bounds a half-yard short of the marker. The punt team was stopped en route by a timeout at 6:26, the offense hurried back out and a quick-snap keeper got first down at the 44.
The drive stopped as Masoli went down without LB K.J. Wright having to actually touch him nine yards behind the line. This punt rolled out at State's 21. ON first down Relf was sacked; on second down things got worse as WR Chris Smith made the short catch and was stripped by Jeremy Magee. Recovering at the 16-yard line, Ole Miss needed just five seconds to score first as Scott went untouched up the middle. The PAT was blocked by DT Fletcher Cox.
Robert Elliott returned the kickoff out to State's 35, and Arceto Clark got the ball across midfield with an 18-yard catch. The Bulldogs didn't take further advantage though. Bumphis had a half-step on coverage only to watch Relf's post throw lead him too much. And on 4th-and-one Relf rolled left with an open corner; only to try a throw against his momentum that was short of Clark.
State had the ball back to begin the second quarter, on their 13-yard line. One Relf keeper and 71 yards later it was on the Rebel 17 after McGee made the saving tackle. On 3rd-and-8 Relf froze the defense while Smith slid inside Charles Sawyer for a catch at the three-yard line. The wideout spun across the goal line at 13:09 and Derek DePasquale hit the go-ahead extra point.
Kickoff man Sean Brauchle had to tackle Scott on the return, at the Rebel 35. Summers got open at the Bulldog 49, and a dump throw to Scott made it first down at the 37. Masoli drilled one to Ja-Mes Logan for 16 more yards, then missed a pair of throws into the end zone. With 3rd-and-15 a sideline throw netted just nine, so Bryson Rose kicked a 34-yard field goal at 10:03 for a 9-7 lead.
Perkins was spun down at the 18-yard line on the return, but that wasn't a problem for State. Because on first down play-action let Relf have time to find Bumphis down the middle…and this time he was on target for a 44-yard catch. Bumphis came down hard, cracking a collarbone, and was done for the evening. On second down Relf rolled right, drawing almost al defense, while Perkins got matched on linebacker Allen Walker down the left-side numbers. The throw was a bit short but Perkins muscled for the catch at the 18-yard line and kept his footing. Walker didn't, so the tailback jogged into the end zone at 8:53 for a 14-9 lead.
Another strong Scott return set the Rebels up on their 40. They made no use of it as twice Masoli unloaded before the rush arrived rather than risk the hit. A huge punt reached the end zone on the fly. On third down Relf threw long but not long enough and Fon Ingram intercepted at the Rebel 34, though this was about the same as a punt. Ole Miss' Tyler Campbell had to punt it back shortly and Perkins, replacing Bumphis, got 16 in return.
State used up half the remaining time with one first down, as Relf muscled to the marker. Ballard was nailed on a run-blitz by Jerrell Powe though and State punted to the 25-yard line. A shovel pass to Bolden made 23 yards, then with 1:28 remaining Ole Miss had 4th-and-2. After a timeout to talk a quick pitch-left was smelled out and DT Pernell McPhee caught Scott for loss of four yards.
With 1:23 still left, too. Not that Mullen seemed ambitious with a short Ballard run. On second down Relf ran out of bounds, but way behind the play guard Quentin Saulsberry's helmet was on the turf. Rebel tackle Ted Laurent had popped him in the facemask, drawing a personal foul in the process.
Now with first down on the Rebel 36, State could take a shot. Not a long one, as it turned out; a simple short screen throw to Perkins sufficed as he sliced through flat-footed downfield defense for a touchdown at 42.4 seconds.
Having gone in front 21-9 the Bulldogs outsmarted themselves with a short kickoff and Rebel possession at the 50-stripe. On third down McPhee sacked Masoli but danced too long and earned a 15-yard deadball penalty. That still left four yards to make and fourth down, and Masoli's short throw caught only turf as the clock ran out. State had nearly doubled the opponent in yardage, 269 to 140, despite running nine fewer plays.
The Bulldogs had first turn in the last half and mustered one move of chains on a 12-yard Ballard dash. Relf was sacked on third down and State had to punt, but returner Grandy was caught on the arm-side by Corey Broomfield, then snapper Aaron Feld, with the ball coming loose. Marvin Bure recovered for State at the 31-yard line.
That was close enough that on fourth down DePasquale could barely clear the crossbar at 11:11 for a 24-9 margin.
Another Scott return to the 40 was wasted. Had State linebacker Wright turned around quicker he would have recorded the first career pick, as Masoli's first down throw was directly into his unsuspecting hands. Ole Miss punted soon enough with fair-catch at the MSU 15. Relf threw to Heavens for one first down and converted 3rd-and-2 himself. Then Perkins found a seam at left end for 34 yards down to the Rebel 31. Having changed the field, though, Relf didn't exchange cleanly with Perkins and Ole Miss fell on the fumble at their 26.
Bolden burst for 12 yards, then the Rebels went backwards on tackles for loss and flags. Perkins fair-caught the punt at his 21 this time. The series seemed sure to be short as two Perkins rushes lost a net yard. But on third down Relf sucked in the hard rush, setting up another screen dump to Perkins. With great downfield blocking by Saulberry and Clark he got 71 yards before being dragged down from behind at the Ole Miss nine.
On third-and-goal at the three Relf got to the left pylon untouched , but tackle Addison Lawrence was caught holding on the far end of the play. Not a problem because on the next chance a handoff to Ballard produced the same result at the same place. The PAT put State up 31-9 at 2:49, and gave Ballard the school season touchdown record.
The margin would hold up; the momentum was about to change sides though. Starting at their 27, Bolden took his team immediately across midfield with a 28-yard grab and go. By the fourth quarter more completions had Ole Miss in State's red zone, then soon facing 4th-and-1 at the ten-yard line. There was no question of kicking, and Bolen took it on himself to not just get a first down but a touchdown with his dash at 13:22.
Not too much later it was MSU's turn to have 4th-and-short. Relf had thrown to Smith for 18 yards to start another drive, and three Perkins runs netted 31 more yards. On the Ole Miss 29 the Dogs called time, during which Mullen ignored his offense's pleas to go for the killer shot; DePasquale lined up a 47-yard field goal that would have been a career long…
…except he was well short at 10:01. This didn't seem much problem though because 31 seconds later Broomfield went down for an errant Masoli throw and made the interception at the OM 41. Yet here too State was uncharacteristically conservative and only ran 2:19 off the clock before kicking into the end zone.
It was the opening Ole Miss had prayed for. The drive was ten plays but five of those snaps went for double digit gains, including the key 13-yard throw on third down to Scott. A 17-yard catch by Grandy spotted the ball on State's 24 where on second down Logan caught the medium-range throw and rambled into the end zone at 4:21.
Now the question was could State make the Rebels use their remaining two timeouts and keep moving the chains. The first was yes, at 3:21 and 3:15. The second? No, though Ballard did get one first down at the State 47. On 3rd-and-4 he got the ball again on a counter, was stood up and stopped before the ball came loose. Ole Miss knew it was a turnover; Mullen thought it was a dead ball. The review official agreed with State's coach, who already had his punt team assembled. Hutchins wasn't rushed and coverage of the 41-yarder was excellent forcing a fair catch at the Rebel 11 with 2:30 left.
If the locals hoped one-year wonder Masoli had some tricks left to play, they were to be frustrated. He did find Logan and Bolen for two first downs; but a second-down holding call cost 15 huge yards back to the 22 and allowed State to send more pressure out of a 3-2-6 set. On 4th-and-24 Broomfield held his position until Masoli committed to rushing and began the game-clinching tackle.
Senior linebackers Wright and White both had nine tackles, and Wright was credited with two sacks while McPhee had the third. As he usually kicked from better field position Hutchins' 42.8 average was more meaningful than the 47.2 by Campbell, and Brauchle had his best game on kickoffs all year along with two tackles. Yet the truly telling stat was 3-of-17 conversions by Ole Miss on third downs, 0-of-10 in the first half.
And of course there was the lightly-regarded State passing game, with Relf countering all critics by neting 22 yards on his typical completion compared to 11 for his more-famed counterpart.
With the victory Mullen became the first Bulldog coach since Allyn McKeen in 1939-40 to win his first two meetings with Ole Miss. No wonder he brought the Golden Egg to postgame, since some things are too dear to let out of sight for long.