Perkins, Seniors Celebrate State Bowl History

If the college career must end, why not go out on a historic note? Which is exactly what LaDarius Perkins and the handful of elder Bulldogs have in mind for their New Years Eve date in Memphis. "It's a great opportunity for the senior class I came in with. Going to my fourth-straight bowl game, it's a great opportunity."

Great indeed. Perkins is among the ten scholarship seniors who are leading Mississippi State to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and stretching the program's string of bowl trips to a record fourth season. Yet the fifth-year running back is part of a more elite list, that of Bulldogs who have gone to all four of these bowls under Coach Dan Mullen.

And trimming the roster down to Dogs who will have actually played in all four post-season trips? That leaves just a trio of seniors who come to campus in Mullen's 2009 recruiting class: guard Gabe Jackson, linebacker Deontae Skinner, and yes, Perkins. These few are naturally proud of making individual player history.

Perkins though is senior enough to appreciate the larger standards that are being set by and for Mississippi State as a program. "Basically it's a routine thing now," he said, and Perkins does not mean in a boring sort of way. This routine is exciting.

"Mississippi State is on the rise, we've been going to bowl games the last four years like you said. We're just trying to put Mississippi State on the map. Some people still don't know up north or in certain areas, I heard about somebody talking about that! But we want to keep winning football games and get Mississippi State's name up there. And get more recruits also."

Yes, recruiting…something that as a senior Perkins takes seriously too. Mullen has instilled an attitude over the five Mississippi State seasons that the best recruiters in any program are the participants. If prospects see them enjoying themselves while also enjoying success, that makes the right recruiting impression. Perkins might not pull on the game uniform again after taking it off in the Liberty Bowl locker room, but he's taken an alumnus' interest in who will wear Maroon and White in seasons ahead.

There's another way to inspire prospects of course: win the bowl game. Perkins in fact recalls what he saw from another Bulldog bunch who visited Memphis seven seasons ago.

"We went the year (two actually) before I got here I think and we won, that was a great opportunity for us also," he says of the 2007 State victory over Central Florida. So even when Perkins signed after a non-bowling 2008 campaign and for a new head coach; and redshirted during the foundation-laying 2009 season without a post-season, he knew holiday play was a realistic goal for Mississippi State.

That attitude actually helped carry this 2013 club during the make-or-break November stretch when a 4-6 team had no margin left. "So, we won these last two games to help put is this situation and it's a great feeling." Even greater because the Dogs did it with overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss to earn bowl eligibility again. Oh, and regain the Golden Egg, something else Perkins and the seniors had gotten used to owning from 2009-11. Now the trophy is safe at home in no small part due to the over-time work by these seniors.

A pair of whom will not get on the Liberty Bowl field, sadly. Quarterback Tyler Russell and free safety Nickoe Whitley were also in that '09 signing class, along with punter Baker Swedenburg. Neither Russell nor Whitley can play after surgeries performed the week after Egg Bowl victory so both can hopefully be healthy for spring pro days.

"I talked to both of them, they're doing pretty good," Perkins said. By now fans are aware how both seniors struggled through all sorts of health issues literally all season. But only a fellow player can really grasp what Russell and Whitley were dealing with while also doing their Dog duty.

"Oh, man, they're great people to do things like that. It's seldom you see people go through that, especially Nickoe needing to have surgery on his knee again." Whitley damaged a ligament in September and didn't let on to outsiders. Especially opponents, who paid the price for testing the free safety too often. Not only did Whitley intercept a team-best five passes but he forced the biggest turnovers of the entire season. He stripped a Razorback runner within easy field goal range and with the wind to force overtime against Arkansas; then raked the ball free from the Ole Miss quarterback a stride short of the goal line to seal that victory.

All on a bad knee that truly should have had Whitley sidelined. "To play through that," Perkins said, "I remember when I got hurt with my ankle I was in the training room. He stayed in the training room every day after the game and was in the whole week trying to get his body back. I knew it was that bad but he said he was going finish out the season. And he made a lot of key plays to put us the position we're in now."

Russell's deeds might not have seemed as dramatic but were just as impressive. An opening-day concussion, an October ankle sprain, and consecutive shoulder separations in November ended his college career a game too soon…but not until he'd put the Bulldogs in position to beat Arkansas and keep bowl hopes alive. And it wasn't just the body that was battered on this quarterback, Perkins relates.

"Tyler has been battling a lot of injuries all year, and he's been battling a lot of critics also. Me and him talked about that a lot. But he kept his composure and kept pushing to finish the season."

The injured upperclassmen will be with classmates and teammates during bowl week and sharing in some special stuff, it sounds like. "Coach Mullen said he'd make sure we have one of the greatest bowl experiences we've had since we've been here," said Perkins. That's for, of course, Dogs who make the trip. As in take care of final exams this week in advance of Friday's opening of bowl camp.

So what has been more on Perkins' mind, finals or bowling? "Both! Basically, both. We have to finish strong in the classroom and then the reward is at the end, which is going to a bowl game." But not just going again. After winning in Jacksonville and Nashville the first two trips, a loss last New Years Day was more deflating than anyone expected.

It means Mississippi State wants to return to another sort of ‘routine' at bowl time; bringing home a trophy to add to those secured before.

"Oh, yeah, we're hungry for another win," Perkins said. "We're riding on a two-game winning streak right now so hopefully we can carry it over to three. This Rice team is going to be Great competition and we look forward to playing against them."

The four open bowl practices begin with Saturday's 10:00am session.

Gene's Page Top Stories