A.D. Scott Stricklin announced in the post-game press conference that pre-orders for three bowls—Liberty, BBVA Compass (Birmingham, Jan 1), and Advocare V100 (Shreveport, Dec 31)—would be accepted "Friday morning if not already." In fact, the Bulldog Club reported a first order received before midnight Thursday.
Playing in Memphis would seem the best outcome not only in financial terms for state, but fan convenience. The location would be easier for fans to attend on a Tuesday afternoon. Last year's crowd for the Gator Bowl on a Tuesday was well-down from the 2011 New Years Saturday turnout because of work schedules, as much as the repetition.
Wherever the Bulldogs play, they will be making program history. For the first time ever, Mississippi State will go bowling four-straight seasons. Last year's team tied the previous streak set in 1998-2000 at three.
OVERTIME GAMES, PRIME TIME DOGS: For years, overtime play was not kind to Mississippi State with losses to Arkansas in 1996, 2000, 2010; and LSU 2000. But that 2000 season, or post-season rather, did produce a win, over Texas A&M in the Snow Bowl. And in 2006 State survived at UAB in extra play.
Now Mullen's Bulldogs have not only won three overtime games, beginning with Louisiana Tech 2011. They've scored back-to-back successes, beating longtime tormentor Arkansas a week ago 24-17; and the arch-rival Rebels on Thanksgiving Night 17-10.
The opponents and addresses were different. The means of victory were so similar as to be eerie for State folk…and likely frightening to future foes. Because a different Dog quarterback scored what became the winning touchdown in each. A week ago it was freshman Damian Williams on a stunning 25-yard bolt up the middle on the first play of overtime.
Last night it was an all-or-nothing fourth down call by sophomore Dak Prescott. He told his coaches (see game story and feature story) not to go for a pass play but to let him haul the ball behind his interior blockers. But did Mullen really need convincing? "In overtime we've got the ball on the three-yard line, we're here to win," said the head coach. "And I felt pretty good about giving the ball to Dak and him being able to find a way to get in the end zone."
Interestingly, Prescott's first play of OT was also a called keeper, which looked a lot like Williams' rush at Little Rock. "It actually was" the same play, Prescott said, and went for nine yards. Four of the six State snaps in OT were quarterback keepers.
And with his nine total carries, for 29 net yards, Prescott set an unofficial sort of program record. He now has 751 rushing yards for the season, which is 740 more than the legendary Don Smith gained in 1986 for most ground gained by a MSU quarterback.
ELITE COMPANY: Prescott's November saga is well-attested, and he was obviously not near 100% strength for the Egg Bowl with the still-damaged nerve from a ‘burner' injury at Texas A&M. Even in warmups he was openly protecting the left arm while passing, though his throwing arm is more than strong enough to offset what would sideline most college quarterbacks.
But to Mullen, the third-year soph is not just another college quarterback. Both physically and emotionally, "He's as tough as they come," the coach said. "I've been around guys that are tough before, and I've been around guys that are quarterbacks like that and competitors. I've been around another 15 probably similar to him that I don't think he felt any pain no matter what the situation would have been."
That other #15 being of course Florida and SEC all-timer Tim Tebow. If comparing Mississippi State's soph to a Heisman Trophy winner seemed audacious from the coach, there were national network commentators following the victory mentioning Prescott as a dark horse future candidate for the trophy.
COOL COACH: Earning bowl eligibility for a record fourth-straight year, as well as a 4-1 record against the Rebels now, signal to Mullen that the program is "not far off" from the sort of championship contention-caliber he has talked about since taking over at State in 2009. "I know at 6-6 that sounds silly and you can laugh at me," Mullen told media.
Then, he made a funny of his own. "I guess I'll be on the hot seat tomorrow." This referred to the inevitable enquiries of outside media if, after the struggles since starting 2012 8-0 with a rivalry loss, Mullen's State status was in jeopardy. It wasn't of course, but the nature of the business demands ‘hot seat' candidates from every conference. And after so many 2012 SEC firings and hirings attention turned State's way.
Joking aside, the ‘seat' in his office—a room in which the Golden Egg was put Thursday night for a photo—is as cool as the stadium environs were by midnight Thursday. Rightly so as, said Mullen, "We're starting something special here."
With 35 wins in five seasons Mullen already is the fourth-winningest Bulldog coach ever and only two behind Emory Bellard who had 37 wins in six seasons.
TAKE AWAY TEAM: Of all the reasons behind Mississippi State's improved November play, turnovers had to rank highest. After an October that produced just two turnovers, an interception and a fumble, the Dog defense turned into brilliant ball-thieves. In the five November games they came away with nine interceptions and five fumbles; compared to eight giveaways by State, the largest single lot of them coming at South Carolina to begin the month.
No takeaways will be better-remembered though than those which sealed both overtime victories. Against Arkansas it was a fourth-down interception by CB Jamerson Love. Against Ole Miss, it was an sheer-effort strip of quarterback Bo Wallace by FS Nickoe Whitley that sent the ball into the end zone where Love could come up with it.
Whitley's turnover-forcing play was brilliant…but not really surprising to LB Richie Brown. "Our whole mindset was put the ball on the ground," he said. Not just in the Egg Bowl but all November. "It was a big emphasis, our coach kept bringing it up; guys we've got to get turnovers. So that was a big emphasis in practice, flipping the ball and getting picks, and guys understood the message."
BROWN TOWN: Redshirt freshman Brown came away with a turnover of his own, when he intercepted Wallace in the second quarter and at the Rebel ten-yard line. Unfortunately a few steps later he ran into a couple of Rebels and Laquon Treadwell was able to pull the ball out from behind and recover the fumble.
Brown was rather professional discussing the bizarre sequence. "It was a good strip, on my first pick! I guess I should have been Coach (Greg) Knox all week and the running backs doing ball drills. I give credit to them, it was a really good strip. But Nickoe Whitley made me feel better, he said it happened to him his first pick too!"
Whitley's consolation was needed, too, Brown admitted. "I was trying not to throw up at halftime."
#1: It has been a season of extremes for Whitley. The senior safety did not play against Alcorn State with a leg injury that likely needed an operation to fully fix. Then he got himself suspended for half of the Troy game for consecutive unsportsmanlike fouls.
But over the last half of his senior season Whitley has been a beast, making plays all over the field against rush and pass. His interception of Wallace made national highlights, and it was his fifth of the year to boot. That puts him at 15 career picks, one short of the program record shared by former teammate John Banks and all-time Dog great Walt Harris.
What will be remembered longest though was how Whitley quite literally saved the last two wins of his final regular season. He stripped Arkansas of the ball in State's red zone near the end of the fourth quarter to prevent a chip-shot field goal for the lead; after preventing a touchdown on the previous play in fact with a race-across-the-field tackle. And his strip of Wallace is now part of eternal Egg Bowl lore.
Justifiably, the near-miraculous comeback of QB Dak Prescott dominated game coverage. Yet teammates counted Whitley's work all fall as just about as heroic. "Nickoe playing on one leg the whole season his last year, willing to put it all out there for us," said Calhoun. "I can't even explain how much I love those guys. And I thank them every day."
Mullen agreed that Whitley has had "ups and downs" over his Bulldog career. "But he believes in the program." And much as the coach rejoiced in the turnover forced to seal another Egg Bowl victory, Mullen recalls something the then-freshman did in 2010 as even bigger, perhaps.
"He made the play to me to win the Georgia game, which completely to me turned our program around. We were 1-2 going into that game, you don't win that game and you probably hit a slide. We win and go on a seven-game winning streak, he makes the play. (This year) He beats Arkansas, beast the school up north."
On top of that, Whitley is already an alumnus in year-five of his college career. "You know, he's graduating with a master's degree in spring?" reminded Mullen.
AND, #51: As in the number of games LG Gabe Jackson has started for State, every game of his four-year varsity career after redshirting in Mullen's initial signing class. That tied the Bulldog lineman with another Bulldog, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, for the active-player NCAA lead.
Murray unfortunately will not be able to start either his team's regular-season finale with Georgia Tech or a bowl game after an injury against Kentucky. So Jackson only needs start State's bowl game to lead the entire nation for 2010-13 starts.
Jackson was awarded the inaugural Kent Hull Trophy last week, given to the best college blocker in Mississippi and named for the all-time Bulldog great (1979-82) and All-Pro center. Jackson is also State's finalist for the state's top overall college player, to be awarded next week at the Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson. It's not a slam-dunk, but the Egg Bowl-winning team has provided more winners of this award than not. State's Anthony Dixon (2009) and Chris White (2010) are the most recent Bulldog winners.
ROUND ONE TO MR. JONES: Both defensive linemen were objects of recruiting obsession last winter, and they chose different college clubs who just happen to play each other. So, how did the inaugural meeting of Mississippi State's Chris Jones and Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche play out?
Houston, Miss., native Jones not only got a victory which is all that really matters, his statistics were stronger; five tackles to three, two tackles for losses to one, and a sack apiece. Jones also broke up a pass and hurried the passer, while his Rebel counterpart did neither.
Jones leads his team in TFLs with seven so far.
HAPPY HOME: It's likely that increasing numbers of both fan bases, whether in the stadium or watching from home, now take for granted that the Battle for the Golden Egg is a bi-annual campus event. Elders know too well though that for nearly two decades the state's great game was played elsewhere. From 1973-90 the Egg Bowl was contested in Jackson's Memorial Stadium. At that time it was a sensible solution. The capitol city's stadium was much larger than either campus venue, which were only in the 30K ranges back then. Neither college town had a lot to offer in dining or entertainment. And, behind the scenes, a Jackson game allowed both schools to show attention to the political class. Ole Miss had an edge there of course which lent a less than neutral air to operations.
So did the results, as the Rebels were 12-6 at MVMS. Still this was not the primary reason Mississippi State's administration wanted to bring the game back to campus. To expand Scott Field (the stadium had no separate name then) required selling far more season tickets, and an Egg Bowl in a 60,000-seat city stadium meant fans didn't need to commit to a full-schedule ducat to attend the top game. And while they didn't dare offend their political patrons, Ole Miss also wanted to leave Jackson for the same reasons.
But it took Mississippi State pulling the trigger for 1991, taking the heat from media and others…and winning that first back to campus game. Since then both schools have expanded the stadiums multiple times, with MSU making the latest move. Fans last night saw even more clearly what Davis Wade Stadium will look like for opening day 2014…ironically against Southern Mississippi.
There are a few Rebels who now grumble though. Because Mississippi State now leads 13-10 in campus meetings since 1991. And MSU has won five-straight home games since 2005.
STILL MAROON: That game was the first Egg Bowl for Jackie Sherrill of course, who did as much to revive a real rivalry between the programs as anyone in either school's history. Sherrill was 7-6 against Ole Miss and is still perhaps the most loathed Bulldog figure ever to Rebels.
Sherrill was on campus for this game week, speaking to the team Wednesday and coincidentally celebrating his 70th birthday. He came to postgame to congratulate Mullen.
HIGH FIVE: In an absolutely trivial note of sorts, Dan Mullen is the first Mississippi State coach to win his fifth Egg Bowl. Not five total, but in his fifth meeting. Not Sherrill, not Allyn McKeen, not Bob Tyler won in year five. For that matter very few coaches ever lasted long enough at State to play five Egg Bowls, and in some cases it was also their last game.
NEW DIGS: Yes, the Golden Egg has returned to campus. Even before victory, MSU staff had prepared a ‘welcome home, we missed you' banner at the Seal Football Complex. Ironically, this is the first time the treasured trophy will reside there.
The $25 million football facility did not open until last January, as originally scheduled. By then the Golden Egg was in exile. So last night served as a ‘housewarming' of sorts for both MSU and the Egg, which is safely home in the splendid facility honoring Leo Seal Jr., the Bulldog letterman, legendary Mississippi banker, and one of Mississippi State's greatest supporters.
AND, NEW LOOK: State has put on special uniforms before for the Egg Bowl, and other ‘big' games since the adidas partnership began. Two seasons ago the Bulldogs donned maroon uniforms with dark gold numbers and trimmings and gold-highlighted cleats for their 2011 victory.
This time though Bulldog football went literally head-to-toe in the uniforms. Besides gold-on-maroon garb (no names either, just ‘Bulldogs' on everyone's back in white letters), spectacular gleaming gilded helmets were worn. Not merely gold a la Notre Dame or Boston College; but reflecting bright gold. The special gear made identifying players difficult from a distance, but the look up-close, or more to the point on television, had exactly the impact State wanted.
Best of all of course, the Dogs won in different helmets for a change, after a couple of losses last and this year in helmets—both maroon and white—with a M Club Bulldog logo outlined.
MSU M*A*S*H: It has been a painful season for many a Dog. Injuries, which began only five snaps into opening day, meant three starters in August weren't playing the Egg Bowl. One, QB Tyler Russell, had a particularly brutal senior season with a game-one concussion, game seven ankle sprain, and right shoulder separations in games ten and eleven. More Dogs went down during Thursday's game at various times though none were clarified.
But there is one Dog who won't be working the bowl game. Bully, the costumed cheerleader, is now out with a broken leg. Michaela Mills was clipped by the ESPN camera-car in the fourth quarter and suffered a compound fracture requiring two surgeries. She is reportedly doing well now but won't be wearing the suit in post-season. She will, or at least should, be included in MSU's game notes among the other injured varsity Dogs of 2013…almost assuredly a program first.
ROOKIE REPORT: Damian Williams got this week's start, not only in his first Egg Bowl game but for his first college opening period. The true freshman was given the start with senior Russell out and Prescott being protected long as possible.
Williams is the first true freshman to start for State in any games since 2007 when then-frosh Wesley Carroll took over by late September and started most of that season's games including the Egg and Liberty bowls. However, records are not available at the moment to see if Williams is the first true frosh ever to make his first college start in the Ole Miss game.