The crowd did not set a Bowl record, as Mississippi State did in 2007 (with maybe less help from Central Florida) of 63,816 that still stands. A Tuesday game during a working week cut into the overall crowd, as was the case at last year's Gator Bowl. This year's turnout was still the eighth-largest for a Liberty Bowl and the highest turnout since the 2010 game, which will make an impression on other bowl committees affiliated with the SEC.
It also rewarded the Liberty Bowl's staff long and hard lobbying to have Mississippi State sent to Memphis despite pressures to take home-state team Vanderbilt. The Commodores and Cincinnati did bring a 57K crowd in 2011 but that was a Saturday game.
As to cowbells, there were no complaints about MSU fans—who were reminded to abide by responsible ringing policies just like Scott Field. Rice certainly felt like visitors in the Liberty Bowl, even if as Conference USA champions they were the designated home team.
And in keeping with the 'Our State' theme, a special guest of Dr. Mark Keenum joined the University president on the field to congratulate the winners during post-game celebrations. Governor Phil Bryant represented the state of Mississippi at the Liberty Bowl just as the State University's team did.
BIG DADDY: The sweetest sound of Preston Smith's day wasn't cowbells celebrating victory. Much as the defensive end enjoyed that, his own ears had been filled earlier by an infant's cries. It was Smith's child born that morning (name and gender not provided at the time). So December 31 will always mean more to him than New Years Eve, after the phone call received at the team hotel.
"Hearing the baby cry in the background, you know that made my day," Smith said with a huge grin. Of course he had some other things to smile about after a six-tackle, one-hurry output for a dominating Dog defense.
"This day means a lot to me," Smith said. "I got Defensive MVP of the game. Also my firstborn child was born early this morning. So it's going to mean a lot to me and my family. And to my team, we got our fourth bowl game and our third win, it's my second ring in college. Words can't even describe it."
SOLID BASE: Describing the Bulldog's defensive plan for Rice was a little easier. Though, State did toss something of a twist at the Owls offense in pregame. The video presentation of a lineup showed a five-man defensive front instead of the four-man base used all season.
That made sense, since Rice is a power running team with the wildcat factor. Stacking the front seemed a smart call. Plus, the loss of FS Nickoe Whitley to December surgery implied trying a three-man secondary with the five-front. That was the implication anyway…until Rice lined up for the first snap. There was State in base again, albeit with some personnel changes at cornerback and safety. Regardless it worked out well as the Dogs crushed Rice's ground game, allowing only 61 yards on 32 rushes or keepers or sacks.
DT P.J. Jones downplayed the deception suggestion. "Yeah, I don't know what happened right then! But we came out and played hard and got the trophy. It's a great win."
That wasn't the only pre-game information proved false. Instead of the announced starters, it was CB Will Redmond and FS Justin Cox lining up for the first defensive series. It was corner Cox's first start at safety, and Memphis native Redmond's first start period.
PAIN, NO COMPLAIN: Speaking of injuries…Whitley had to watch from the sideline, having passed on the bowl to get his September-damaged knee fixed for spring pro tryouts. So the senior safety finished with 15 career interceptions, one short of tying for the school record. Senior QB Tyler Russell was in jersey and sweats for his final college game, having had his twice-separated throwing shoulder addressed in December too. He leaves with the career touchdown passes record, 42. Russell did represent State as one of the four team captains and called the coin toss, losing it.
Russell and Whitley were present at practices and playing a captain's part, Mullen reported, as did SS Jay Hughes who was lost to a foot injury a series into the season. "Even the guys that didn't' play like Tyler and Nickoe and Jay kept everybody focused. They did a special job. I had to raise my voice a couple of times at the end of the week because our guys I think we were very prepared for the team. I had to make sure we were locked-in and focused."
Other Dogs kept playing on their aches and ills, most notably RT Charles Siddoway with a couple of bulging back discs that by all rights should have kept him out of the season's second half at least. He never complained and did an admirable job protecting passers. And DT Jones, who hurt his foot in early August, dealt with the pain all year.
"I had a choice to miss the season I guess," he said. "But I put in too much hard work and played through it. A lot of guys did, the amount of heart we have on this team is amazing."
DAK'S DYNASTY: No Dog played with the sort of pain QB Dak Prescott did of course. The early-November passing of his mother tested the third-year sophomore's emotions to the limits. Then it was his body taking the big blow, a left shoulder nerve damaged at Texas A&M which sidelined him for two whole games and three quarters of the Egg Bowl. In the season's finest single story-line Prescott came off the bench in the fourth quarter of that all-or-nothing showdown to direct the tying field goal in regulation; then score what proved the winning touchdown in overtime.
Yet those who have come to know Prescott weren't surprised how he downplayed the wounds to body and heart, and played-up bringing the Bulldogs bowling. So a slow start at Memphis when he began 3-of-7 passing and had a caught ball fumbled away wasn't rattling the team's leading light.
"I guess it was just a little bit of adversity, like the rest of the season. But my teammate rallied behind me and I didn't pay attention, and we kept rallying as a team and pulled it out."
Did they ever. The rest of his day Prescott was 14-of-21 passing and converted every important third down. Or every third down almost as State only punted once while Prescott was at quarterback. This was an offense, remember, which the first half of the season struggled badly under third down pressure.
Prescott did, as the game story noted, have a record-setting day in his first bowling start. But he did it all in three full quarters before Damian Williams took care of the whole fourth. Had Prescott stayed in the game much longer he would have surely re-written the Liberty Bowl records for passing and scoring. As it is he set a MSU bowl record with five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) produced, tied the passing touchdowns record, and was four yards short of the bowl passing yards record with his 283. Had RB Ashton Shumpert gained instead of losing (three) yards on Prescott's last completed pass he would have surpassed the 287 yards by Greg Plump in the 1993 Peach Bowl.
Records still didn't register much with this quarterback, not after the season he's survived to ultimately thrive in. "It's really been about Mississippi State University," Prescott said. "And this football team comforted me and being there for me while helping I guess the hardest thing in my life easier. I can't be thankful enough for Coach Mullen my teammates, the University, Dr. (Mark) Keenum supporting me and sticking with he. It just allowed me to play football at peace."
It gives Coach Dan Mullen much peace of mind knowing he has Prescott back for a junior season in 2014. And in just two seasons, really just half of one as a starter, Prescott is making marks in the MSU record book. He has been responsible for 33 touchdowns; 17 rushing, 14 passing, and two receiving. Officially the two catches, on throwback plays, don't count as ‘responsible for' so he's at 31 in that category.
Yet 31 has him knocking on top-ten career status already; Rockey Felker is 10th with 35. And the all-time record is 52 by Don Smith (1983-86). Two full seasons in today's 12-game schedules with bowl games make that a mark to aim at.
For that matter Prescott produced 23 TDsRF this season, the third-best year ever for a Bulldog and three back of the 26 by Russell last season. He set the season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, surpassing the great Smith. His 13 rushing scores are tied for the 5th-best season ever. And again, Prescott didn't even play a full schedule. The MSU mind boggles at what the future holds.
TUBBY'S TIME: Of course so much of what Prescott did during the season in general and Liberty Bowl in particular involved his favorite target. WR Jameon Lewis was brilliant, catching nine passes for a program-record 220 yards…more than David Smith, Mardye McDole, Eric Moulds, any Dog receiver ever. And in a bowl game, not against some lightweight opponent.
Though, Lewis made the Owl defense look pretty light-headed. This it turned out was by design. "We saw the soft coverage they were playing," Lewis said. "And inside I saw it was easy for me to get them going in one direction and take the other direction."
The soft coverage Lewis saw was between the hashmarks. Rice's secondary has two standouts in coverage, but they both worked the outside said Prescott. So this all-but-begged State to use the slot receiver Lewis. "They had two very good cornerbacks and we were going to attack the interior of their secondary," said Prescott. "Jameon made some good moves on some safeties and got open."
And, made catches. Besides good hands he had fine feet, only slipping once—after a 17-yard gainer—on the tricky turf that had both teams' skill guys watching their footing. Rice simply had no answer for Lewis in coverage, all they could do was tackle him after the catch. Which Mullen was able to make a joke about.
"To have 220 yards and still didn't score a touchdown," the coach quipped. "So we have to work on his speed in the off-season!"
Lewis, the Outstanding Offensive Player for State (Prescott was gave overall MVP) also set the Liberty Bowl receiving record. He finished with 64 catches on his junior season, tying for second-most in MSU history. His 267 all-purpose yards this game was fourth-most by a Bulldog.
And just where did Lewis make his first college catch? At the Liberty Bowl stadium in 2011, in his college debut against Memphis. Prescott was redshirting that season. He said while State wanted to work the slot receiver, and tight ends, against Rice's defensive scheme it wasn't a case of him looking for Tubby specifically.
"They (the coaches) set the gameplan up for us to execute. It just worked out exactly like they planned it. "I just say it was in the gameplan, it wasn't necessarily to Jameon. It was the way the defense was folding out."
Despite is record-setting show, there was one thing Lewis struggled with. Midway of his first answer in post-game interview he checked-up. "Whew, I'm kind of nervous!" he said while teammates chuckled.
DURABLE DOG: OG Gabe Jackson made his 52nd and final start for Mississippi State, which also happens to give the senior lineman the record for most games started as a Bulldog. After redshirting as part of Coach Dan Mullen's 2009 debut signing class, Jackson moved into the lineup at guard in 2010 and never left.
Jackson also ends his career with a NCAA mark of sorts. He will lead the nation in active-player career starts at 52 for 2010-13, since Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (51 starts) won't play tomorrow in their bowl game due to injury. Jackson's stay in first place ends along with his career of course. But for an offensive lineman to get in the starting SEC lineup and last without missing a kickoff to injury, and play at Jackson's level, speaks to his sheer durability.
BOWLING BULLDOGS: Jackson does exit with another Mississippi State record; he is the first Bulldog ever to start four bowl games. He was joined by '09 classmates RB LaDarius Perkins and LB Deontae Skinner as the first Dogs to play in four bowl games, though the latter two didn't start all of them.
A pair of underclassman Bulldogs can join Jackson in that most elite club with a 2014 bowl trip. OC Dillon Day and DT Kaleb Eulls have now started three-straight bowls.
SPECIAL, SORTA: PK Evan Sobiesk did not have to kick a field goal this game, as he had to tie the Egg Bowl. He made five PATs, with one miss. Or that's how it looks on the 2013 stat sheet. In fact his third point-after was blocked, albeit after a high snap Prescott had to pull down to place first.
Not a huge deal in the big picture, to be sure. Yet what made the miss remarkable was Sobiesk put foot to ball twice on the play. The deflection came right back to the kicker and he took a second swing. Not trying to make anything, though; Sobiesk was showing some smarts.
"I was trying to make sure they didn't pick the ball up and run it back for two points." See, Sobiesk knew what he was doing was illegal; a ball can't be kicked twice in that way. "I did know it was against the rules. But I was making sure we saved points, if anything the penalty would go to the kickoff and Devon Bell can make up for that with his leg."
And the weirdness didn't stop there, as after the kick "It popped right in my hands. Dak was behind me, he wanted me to pitch it to him but I figured that wouldn't have been very good! As soon as I hit it again I knew it was going to be OK. And Coach Mullen told me smart play, do what you have to do."
All Sobiesk hopes is that his free-lance reaction doesn't end up on some sort of ‘Not Top Ten' replay. Regardless, "I've never seen it before either, so it's a first for me, too!"
That wasn't the only ‘first' for a State specialist. With the game winding down and the Dogs on Rice's three-yard line, Mullen sent in the field goal team. But it wasn't to run up the score. The coach was rewarding Taylor Earhart with a chance to kick a field goal on the last game of his college career.
"They let me know I was going to kick about ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. I thought I was going to kick the first one when we went for it on fourth down. They let me kick the last one." The walk-on from Olive Branch had played this season, twice kicking off; but he'd never been given a placekick chance.
Yet he looked like an old pro knocking the 19-yarder in for State's last point of the bowl. "It feels awesome, I'll never forget this game for sure. It's an awesome experience. I had no doubt, I felt I kicked it good and looked up, and it went right through the pipes." He also got to kick out of the hold of fellow senior specialist P Baker Swedenburg on his own final college play.
Scoring three needless points might have rubbed Rice the wrong way, but walk-on Earhart hoped they understood. "Yeah, I'm a third string so hopefully they don't mind it."
MSU-ELLANEOUS: Dan Mullen now has the most bowl wins of any Bulldog coach, three of them and in four trips. Jackie Sherrill had two wins in six tries. Sherrill was present at the Liberty Bowl this year, and fans recall his first bowling trip with State was to the '91 Liberty Bowl…Mullen now has 36 wins at State, one short of tying Emory Bellard for third place after just five seasons…He has now led State to a record four-consecutive bowl games…Mississippi State is 10-7 in bowl games and has won six of the last seven post-season events…State is now 3-1 in Liberty Bowls…The 44 points scored were the second-most by a Bulldog bowl team, behind only the 52 Mullen's 2010 team hung on Michigan in the Gator Bowl…State scored all 44 points uninterrupted after Rice put the game's first touchdown on the board…This team set the program record for yardage, both total (5,647) and average (434.4). The latter broke a record set back in 1982!...This offense also surpassed the 2010 team's records with 300 first downs, 253 completed passes, and 3,178 passing yards…State's defense didn't give up a passing touchdown in the last three games of the season…LB Matt Wells came away with the only Rice turnover, a fumble. It was his second recovery of the season…LB Deontae Skinner finished his career with 202 career tackles…DE Denico Autry got a quarterback sack in his final college game...With State's win, the SEC is off to a 3-0 start in bowl play this post-season.