The Biggest Bulldog Days (And Nights) Ever

Let’s establish one fact right now: every win is big.

In the aftermath of Mississippi State’s victory at #8 Louisiana State last week, the press corps populace immediately began asking the few long-time Bulldog followers if this was one of the ten, even five biggest wins in program history.

Too soon, guys. Waaaay too soon to say.

Beyond question it is a breakthrough success for this Bulldog team, and another milestone in Coach Dan Mullen’s tenure. And for a few generations of State fans who’d forgotten or never even known the fun of topping a Tiger team, it must feel like an all-time moment…to them.

Without taking an atom of importance—and even better enjoyment--away from what this team just achieved, whether this is eventually regarded and remembered as a ‘biggest’ win in program history depends on what State does with over the rest of 2014...and on into ’15 and beyond.

Which nicely segues into a topic for this bye week: what should we consider the really ‘biggest’ wins by Bulldog teams over their 115 seasons so far?

This is where perspective helps trim the roster. There might not have been or ever again be an upset comparable to the 1951 Bulldogs knocking off a Tennessee team which still went on to that year’s national championship. It didn’t keep State from firing the coach at the end of the same season. Or as enjoyable at the time as was knocking off the Archies Army (even if he didn’t play) Rebels of 1970 in Oxford, it too was just a brief blip.

Whereas wins that felt great at the time today stand out as even greater in terms of what they meant for Bulldog football and Mississippi State University. Here’s the first of a three-day series selecting the greatest, and done in archeological order.

1935 STATE COLLEGE 13, ARMY 7 (West Point) – Every program needs one moment to say there, that was the moment everything really began. This was it for a school that had only become officially a college three years earlier. Recent generations only know Army as a marginal football program, but for the first half of the 20th Century they were an annual powerhouse with national championships aplenty. So just making that road trip was a big deal for a Mississippi college; too big a deal for a few Dogs who got a little carried away during the ten-day trip with what was reported, in the discrete manner of the day, as breaking training with some ladies of Cincinnati. The more things change in college sports etc. and so on…

The game was arranged by coach Major Ralph Sasse, a WWI veteran and regarded as an armored warfare genius by no less an authority than George Patton. He’d been a good coach at Army too, before a player’s death broke him emotionally. Sasse was lured back into football thanks to a chance meeting with State’s president, and accounts are he inherited a good club recruited by the campus secretary. Army doesn’t seem to have taken their guests, the ‘Farm Boys from Mississippi’ as media labeled them, lightly either.

No, the Sassemen won this one straight-up. Bobby Thames scored the day’s first touchdown; Army tied it in the second quarter and were driving in the third before Ike Pickle picked off a pass at the State ten-yard line. Minutes into the final period Pee Wee Armstrong and Fred Walters hooked up for a 35-yard touchdown pass. That lead held and all ‘Farm Boys’ fans who’d paid the $37 (!) round trip fee to watch the game went back to their fields well-rewarded.

Sasse’s tenure ended tragically, with a breakdown in 1937. But he’d shown the school it could win at football and on the big stage, and for most of the ensuing decade Dog teams did.

1940 STATE COLLEGE 13, Alabama 0 (Tuscaloosa) – There were two huge news items at State College in fall 1940. First, the campus Grill had just (gasp!) been air conditioned, a marvel of the age.

Second, the Bulldog eleven had a pretty cool coach in Allyn McKeen, now in his second season and directing a team on the verge of real greatness. Inheriting a lot of kids recruited under Sasse, McKeen began with an 8-2 season in ’39. That left a senior-dominated ’40 squad ready for a real run.

The defense was superb, not allowing more than a touchdown the first seven games. Unfortunately one TD was all Auburn needed to force a 7-7 tie the third weekend, and that deadlock would cost lots at the end. Still as the Maroon stormed through the rest of the slate the Orange Bowl announced they wanted the winner of the State-Alabama game.

It was Homecoming in Tuscaloosa and a rainy day where Alabama’s superior size showed…until Hunter Corhern saved a touchdown on a 45-yard Tide run by knocking the ball free at the goal line and recovered it himself. Two runs by Harvey Johnson covered the whole field for a touchdown. IN the last quarter Charley Young intercepted a pass, then on offense took the direct snap 23 yards for an icing touchdown.

Earning a week in Miami for New Years was, well “a bunch of country boys who had never been any place, and we had a heck of a time” Corhern told this writer back in 1986. They beat Georgetown to finish 10-0-1, 4-0-1 SEC, but 5-0 and unbeaten Tennessee took the SEC title (so please, no claims of a ‘national championship’). The SEC crown was earned the next year by beating Ole Miss 6-0 in the home finale, before a road trip and win at San Francisco…the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. So the unbeaten Bulldogs of 1940 and champions of ’41 quickly put on another uniform to fight for an infinitely greater victory.

1961 STATE 11, #4 AUBURN 10 (Birmingham) – Cynics suggest any sort of success during those ‘dark ages’ would shine far brighter for it. And to be sure there weren’t much in the way of short-term benefits; Wade Walker was still fired after the season. Still this one makes the ‘big’ cut not just for being an upset—and it was a biggie—but because well, State had lost 20 of the last 21 SEC games and tied that lone exception. So they went to Legion Field with no honest optimism and after a 24-0 thrashing by what became Bear Bryant’s first title team in Tuscaloosa.

Then the Dogs turned opening possession into a 3-0 lead off Sammy Dantone’s field goal for all the scoring at halftime. ‘Tootie’ Hill and Charlie Furlow took turns at quarterback and the offense moved but didn’t add to the lead. It looked like all was for nought again when Auburn tied it up on their own field goal, then used an interception to set up the go-ahead touchdown drive with less than six minutes left.

Would this be yet another close-but-nothing day? Nope. Hill found open receivers or just ran it himself on a 69-yard drive that ended on Billy Cook’s three-yard rush. Would State settle for a tie try? Again nope, not with that long losing streak begging for snapping. Furlow rolled around the backfield until spotting Johnny Baker out left in the end zone. The tight end had to jump for the ball but came down and in bounds. The streak was ended and while Walker lost the coaching job after another Egg Bowl defeat he was—incredibly to today’s fans—retained as athletic director. Yep, it was a different time.

1963 STATE 10, OLE MISS 10 (Campus) – You read rightly. One of the greatest wins of Bulldog history was a tie. Setting aside what it implies about the program’s sad status from 1948-73, this deadlock was something more than a bright spot in a dark time.

See, State fans not yet on Social Security will find it hard to believe how half-a-century ago Ole Miss was regarded as a national power. And beginning in 1947, Bulldog teams always lost the Golden Egg save for ties in ’53 and ’57. Being dominated for so long and so thoroughly ground takes a toll.

Somehow though the last of Walker’s players combined with the talent Davis managed to procure to show some improved competitiveness in 1962. It blossomed in ’63 with wins over Tennessee, Auburn, LSU; and the two losses were by nine total points. So when Ole Miss came to campus the Bulldogs were not only looking to snap the streak but earn a bowl bid.

Witnesses relate it was a weird sort of setting as only a week before John Kennedy had been assassinated. The chilly, windy conditions suited the situation and State’s mood only worsened as the Rebels scored on their first series. It was 7-3 in the third quarter when a bad punt put the Bulldogs on the Rebel 32. Davis called for a trick play, with Ode Burrell throwing a halfback pass caught for touchdown by Tommy Inman. That was the only completion of State’s day, by the way.

With three minutes left Ole Miss had driven to the three-yard line with fourth down. To the amazement of everyone on both sidelines, the field goal team was sent out. They were good as Ole Miss took the tie. State celebrated as if winners and indeed felt that way when the Liberty Bowl invitation came. The Rebels did get the Sugar Bowl only to lose there to Alabama…and have not won a SEC title since.

1974 STATE 29, Memphis STATE 28 (Memphis) – Looking for a ‘benchmark’ in Bulldog history? Look no further. This one can accurately be called the day—or night rather—when Mississippi State football entered the modern era. Bob Tyler’s second team was a matured bunch on the verge of breakout, but still unsure just how good they really were at 4-1.

Plus, they were supposed to beat the Memphis bunch anyway, so a 21-14 lead through three quarters seemed nothing special. That’s when everything changed, at first for the worst as Memphis scored a tying touchdown; then took advantage of a fumble for the 28-21 lead with ten minutes left. At 3:06 State was pinned on the two-yard line.

Thus was born the legend of Rockey Felker.

To be clear, the Dogs already had drives of 99 and 89 yards to their credit so this one wasn’t impossible. It just had to be perfect. Felker executed the ‘veer’ offense (which today is seen as an ancestor of the ‘spread’ concept) nearly so, beginning with a 18-yard pitch rush by Walter Packer. A third-down throw to Stan Black for 33 moved the chains, fullback Dennis Johnson surprised the Tigers with a 19-yard blast up the gut, then got first down on the 14. Felker saw Memphis stacking the front and audibled for a pass to Melvin Barkum at the Tiger two. Johnson walked into the end zone at 0:49 and Tyler, spurning caution, went for the win.

There was no doubt what was coming; only who would have the ball on the option-right play. Answer: Felker kept, stepping inside containment for the two-points, the win, and a true turning point. Because State went on to a 9-3 record, including a thorough thumping of Ole Miss, and Sun Bowl victory.

There have been plenty ups and lots of downs since. But in the long view so much of what State football has become can be traced back to that marvelous drive and two-point conversion.

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