So it was I heard faceless voices over scratchy AM channels from such exotic-sounding locales as Baton Rouge and Knoxville and Lexington. The way those folk talked, sometimes shouted and often groaned, and yells and screams of thousands in the stadiums made this country kid think…wow, that is something special. It was reinforced on Saturdays when Dad would take his seat, radio in lap for better reception, and we kids knew not to make any noise while a staccato-voiced fellow named Jack was talking.
We knew it had to be serious to pull him away from all the farm work…and if we interrupted listening well, it was amazing how many chores he could quickly come up with to send us from the house. I did learn of his loyalty to Mississippi State sports over time, and realized it was a big deal one evening when I heard a loud THUMP of two feet stomping the floor from my low-emotion father. I went in and asked what happened? Wearing a huge grin he said "Rockey just scored." That was the '74 comeback drive at Memphis State, of course, which made noise all over this state and which now we can recognize as a ‘benchmark' moment in Bulldog football history.
I recalled this last night as Vanderbilt's quarterback scooted for the winning touchdown at Tennessee completing an improbable-under-the-conditions Commys comeback. Oh yes, that was the game I wanted to hear, rough as WLAC's signal was in the rental Hyundai. I didn't listen to the other SEC evening game until the end, during Missouri's clock-eating final drive. Though, I did tune-in just in time to hear a marvelous bit of mathematics from the broadcast booth analyst, when he explained the visitors held a ten-point margin with the 24-10 lead. Told you I love listening to school's own crews, and it's not necessarily because they're actually good…
Bigger picture reason why I was focused on the other game was a Vol loss would take, or did take I should say, them out of Liberty Bowl contention. It leaves that door entirely open for these Bulldogs if this week they can muster the moxie seen yesterday, hopefully without all of the self-induced difficulties which made the overtime win so dramatic and traumatic.
Another benchmark moment, even? Perhaps so if State secures the home-field result to make a frustrating and infuriating 2013 an overall success. I've no idea what the opening line will be nor care really at this point. Because for whatever reasons, something started during the South Carolina game week which has made the end of this season fascinating to observe; and bodes ever so much more for next fall and beyond.
I see a Bulldog team growing up.
Or maybe a better description, a team finally figuring out who and what it is. Yeah, I've harped on the ‘identity' idea before more than I probably should. Even asked Dan Mullen directly sometime in October about it. He said he knew the team's identity and he probably did. Yet I'm now convinced more than ever the Bulldogs weren't so self-aware…and with justifiable reasons which extend back to 2012 really. Even in winning there wasn't a sense State had entirely resolved the equation of pocket passing and read-option and all the stuff inherent in differing quarterbacks of different styles and experience and, to be fair, personalities too. And we all recall debates on static defensive philosophies.
This season, well, I'll forever believe had there not been a first-drive blocking penalty on opening day and two ensuing head-shots to Tyler Russell that the Dogs would have won over both then-gelling Oklahoma State and Auburn teams. (And boy have both gelled since!) In which case we'd be assured of a program-record fourth-straight bowl trip already. Instead it's been a season-long shuffling at the utterly-key position in a Mullen offense for reasons beyond mortal control. And now, sheesh, another four days of will he/won't he involving both Russell and Dak Prescott. I know, I know, I reported Mullen's quote from that little side-room at War Memorial Stadium that Prescott is "probably out until the bowl game" with that damaged nerve…and which come to think we've never been told exactly which one was damaged on that hit-and-landing at College Station which I had a perfect field-level view of. It hurt to see. Just as watching Russell go down in a crumpled heap on his already-hurting right shoulder, raising the left arm to wave for a trainer's aid.
Though as Josh Robinson would say it, and did yesterday, lemme tell you this…I noticed Tyler during overtime on the sideline, standing tall and apart with right arm held tight to the body and hand across his stomach, moving nothing on that side more than necessary. He was as focused on Damian Williams' getting the offense lined-up for OT as if Tyler was on the field himself (and he did participate in the coin toss too, the captain doing his duty injured or not). When the freshman bolted across the goal line everyone on State's sideline went into hysterics, not least AD Scott Stricklin with an epic fist-pump. Russell? You'd have thought he'd scored the ball, just as Dak Prescott was spinning and grinning too there in sweats and knit cap.
We'll never know what might have developed among or between the quarterbacks had 2013 stayed on expected script. What we do know is the typical talk of ‘brothers' is completely, unabashedly true with this trio. Merciful Lord, what I'd give for Tyler to exit Scott Field carrying the Egg this time along with his small senior class. Because based on what we're seeing this November, the returning team will have excellent odds of hoisting it themselves repeatedly in years to come. These underclassmen have, by plan or necessity or outright emergency, been forced into roles ahead of any schedule. While it came at a cost this season, as you'd figure, the investment will be paying off handsomely. Maybe even this week and, heaven helping, during bowl season.
No, Mullen had no Sunday teleconference update on Russell or Prescott, sorry. Not that I expected it because training room-call is two-ish and the coach only gets those results later, prior to practice which is closed of course. Be monitoring twiter (@DawgsBiteMag and others) around 1:00 tomorrow, never know if we'll hear something solid. Or not. What would Egg Bowl week be without incessant injury rumoring? And yes, I've had flashbacks to 2006 when all State had available was an Omar Conner on a torn groin, the other two quarterbacks out with ending-injuries.
Regardless, we could look back someday and see that trip to Little Rock as another program turning point. That first-ever win in WMS might also be the only given how the Arky series is moving up in future schedules, who knows? At least a Bulldog team exited that dump of a facility smiling at long last. Ironically while returning to the press box, crossing the field, I recalled how 20 seasons ago I walked out of that same end zone to shake hands with then-Razorback assistant coach Rockey Felker after the 13-13 tie which was as close as we'd come to success in Little Rock. Until now.
The locals, those that showed up anyway, weren't a happy lot, including probably the gent who rattled Friday's evening meal at the Flying Fish (crawfish chowder, a must-try) by leading everyone but the fivesome at our table in calling the hogs. Woo pig shutup. Then again if I lived in the eastern half of that state I'd probably find swine-shouting good fun too. Those folk residing along Hwy 65 must watch ‘Justified' episodes and envy the lavish lifestyles of Harlan County.
For me those Arky delta miles rolled smoothly thanks to radio football bringing back youthful memories. Which, I'll now bore you further with, were reinforced by something odd I did Saturday. Gerald Murray passed in 2000, days before that Arkansas game. Many of you will recall it as the ‘sleet game' at Scott Field; I surely do because as a then-photographer I froze my glove-less hands working the Nikon for awful hours…as cold outside as I was inside after the week's family events. The game went into overtime as State missed a winning field goal try in regulation, holder Dicenzo Miller unable due to a strapped-up separated shoulder (egad, all the resonances!) to grab the slightly-wide snap and place it properly. Arkansas won in overtime.
Fast forward to this rematch. On pure whim I took a maroon tie that I'd picked out of Dad's scanty collection to keep, and wore it yesterday. When State missed another kick that would have won it, well, you can imagine what I was thinking. But Williams, Robinson, the offensive line, and a rise-to-occasion defense wrote a different Dog ending this time, for which I'm personally grateful indeed. I bet it all sounded quite wonderful on the airwaves, too.
This week? Dogs, just do it for yourselves. Write your own place in program history, while the rest of us get another gauge on the future that is taking shape down a season's stretch.