The Biggest Bulldog Days (And Nights) Part 2

In Part 1 of this three-day series, we covered the most meaningful Mississippi State victories from 1935 through 1974. With, we said, the latter year demarking the start of Bulldog football’s ‘modern’ era. The rest of the ‘70s had some fine wins and fun days (foremost, both Florida State and LSU ’78, Tennessee ’79) but much more frustrating than successful. The next big win came in …

1980 STATE 6, Alabama 3 (Jackson) – Right, like we really need recounting this one? Well maybe in some aspects we do. This win didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Even if Emory Bellard’s debut ’79 season sputtered he had inherited most of Bob Tyler’s last great signing class and they were maturing by ’80. All he needed was the right couple of final pieces to make his revised ‘wingbone’ run.

Hello, John Bond. Sought by Georgia and Alabama as a linebacker or tight end, Bellard saw an option quarterback. Soon so did the rest of the world. Some fine-tuning was needed as losses at Florida and to Southern Miss showed; but a trip to #18 Miami is where it all clicked at last, followed by an under-appreciated nailbiter edging of Auburn in Jackson. A week later the Dogs were back in town but this time it was the other neighbor-state squad awaiting, #1 and two-time national champs Alabama with their 28-game win streak and 22-year streak over State.

Today’s fans will be stunned to hear no TV was at the game. This was pre-cable remember, but also another Tide triumph was presumed as Bear Bryant’s bunch would use their long-perfected wishbone against its devisor. But as Bellard told the team, he’d not only invented the wishbone but knew how to stop it. Truth is, that Dog defense was arguably the greatest ever collection of talents to line up for a State team and could hold their own anyway. They allowed just the Tide field goal before halftime to prove it, and only because Mardye McDole dropped a punt.

Same time though Alabama was stuffing State’s wingbone. It took a return-turnover to get something going with Dana Moore tying things up on his 37-yard field goal. Early in the fourth quarter Bond moved the ball as far as the five-yard line, where Moore put the Dogs up at last.

Trust me kids, this was a day of pure gridiron brutality with neither side yielding an inch much less yard. Still Alabama got their last shot when Moore’s field goal was blocked, the Tide took over on the Bulldog 47, and four quick pass completions had them on the four-yard line with first down. Everyone knew what was coming.

And now, Gridiron Club denizens at Davis Wad Stadium can see the diagram of what happened. Don Jacobs began the option-right only to get drilled pre-pitch by Tyrone Keyes, using all his 6-7 frame to stretch through blocking. The ball came free and all the way from the back side Billy Jackson arrived to fall on the fumble. Game over, right?

Ummm, no. The necessary final snap became chaos as the UA nose guard (legally) slapped Kent Hull’s snap in-motion. The football shot past Bond’s helmet and in an epic scramble Donald Ray King not only recovered but did so in the field of play. A safety wouldn’t have won it, but as these were SEC refs and that was Bear on the other sideline… Fortunately as soon as State was ruled to have retained possession the zebras raced for their exit gate, just as fortunately only ten yards away and on State’s side of the field.

Also under-appreciated is that State had an open date to come down from this highest of highs and regroup to beat LSU and Ole Miss to earn the Sun Bowl berth and a nine-win season. Enough star-power was back for a good ’81 too, but also an under-achieving season as Bellard’s inherent conservatism told in tight losses. It was loss of good staff and lots of poor recruiting that meant it would only be a two-season surge…but at least future Bulldog teams had proof anything was possible.

And I still have an un-used bumper sticker proclaiming I Was There.

1991 STATE 13, Texas 6 (Campus) – Naturally the expectations were elevated with the hiring of Jackie Sherrill. And to be fair to predecessor Rockey Felker the cupboard wasn’t bare, in fact one more win in ’90 and no change would have been made…one of those ‘what ifs?’ that litter this program’s history. What we do know is putting some more muscle on the roster, and injecting a big dose of old-fashioned bravura was exactly what State needed for the new decade.

Still, there’s always the gap ‘tween expectations and proof. It was bridged in game-two…which by an ironically cruel twist of football fate found Sherrill’s favorite victims from the Aggie years coming to campus in an already-scheduled matchup. Texas was the reigning Southwest (kids ask yer elders) Conference champion and heavily favored…but as it turned out very vulnerable. Though they did score first, a field goal, thanks to better punting position, the Longhorns got a lesson in physical football all day.

State trumped the three with seven on a 73-yard drive directed by option whiz Sleepy Robinson, who caught the defense looking for another run to hook up with Treddis Anderson for the touchdown. All other points came from the kickers as Chris Gardner made it 10-3 at halftime and 13-6 with 13:00 left to play. We who were there on the sideline also recall that had a short shower not cooled the field just a bit there would have been Texans falling out like slaughtered beeves.

In it was only made a game again when the referee obstructed Robinson’s view on a shovel pass that ended up an interception. Fortunately Kenny Roberts ran down the linebacker to prevent a touchdown, Texas settled for a field goal and had their last chance spoiled at State’s 19 as Rodney Stowers—who was to die from a freak game injury three weeks later—sacked the quarterback.

The win affirmed State’s risky hiring of a charismatic-if-controversial coach, with a return to bowling after a decade’s absence and the first of three winning seasons in four years. In ’92 Sherrill would hook the Horns again, this time in Austin, but it was a costly win. Injuries that night and a week later at LSU, and the loss of Sleepy Robinson in a win over Florida kept 1992 from becoming the championship season it could and likely should have been. Titles would have to wait.

1996 STATE 17, ALABAMA 16 (Campus) – Much of the glitter gained from 1991-94 had worn off after a rough 1995 and struggling start to ’96, compounded by knee injury to brilliant back Keffer McGee in week three. Plus, the NCAA was back on his trail and sanctions sure to come soon. But just when the SEC and for that matter all football thought they could count Sherrill out…surprise!

Or was this victory really that surprising? Well, yes. Even though the Bulldogs had gathered themselves to play competitively with LSU and Kentucky, and quarterback Derrick Taite was piling up the stats at the end of his productive career, #8 Alabama was expected to take care of business in Starkville. In fact the visiting media thought so little of the matchup, they missed kickoff; they were in back of the press box watching Auburn-Georgia go into overtimes.

Upon reaching assigned seats at last, even they sensed something was wrong with the script. Instead of playing dead the Dogs were taking the fight right at Alabama. While the first points (a 17-yard run by Robert Isaac) didn’t come until the last minute of the quarter State was not just battling toe-to-toe but winning in the trenches. First-down play selection was inspired with consistent five and six yard gains that both moved the ball and shorted Tide possession time. An Izell McGill interception set up the second State touchdown with Taite throwing to Lamont Woodberry.

Still it was just a 14-13 halftime, the difference a missed Alabama PAT, and the same score held through three quarters. The visitors finally went in front on a field goal at 11:32. But not for long.

Because on first down tight end Reggie Kelly got loose for a catch 15 yards downfield…and didn’t stop there. Angling against the coverage-grain he ran all the way down to the 11-yard line. State played for the short lead and Brian Hazelwood was good from 39-yards. Four Alabama series netted nothing with McGill making a second pick. As the home crowd celebrated there was an impromptu and infamous meeting of coach Gene Stallings and his A.D. outside the locker room which some are convinced led to an end-of-season retirement. Only they really know.

What everyone did know was State and Sherrill weren’t done. The season ended with a win in an Oxford monsoon, and while the NCAA slapped a 16-scholarship limit on the winter it became arguably the best on-average recruiting class ever here. They were what kick-started the Bulldogs to four-straight winning years, largely because a down-Dog team wasn’t going to get kicked around in 1996.

1997 STATE 20, AUBURN 0 (Auburn) – That didn’t make 1997 a cakewalk though. It took half a season for everyone to assimilate and the growing pains were apparent in thumpings by LSU and Georgia. But taking care of Northeast Louisiana reversed the trend, followed by a tough win over Daunte Culpepper’s Central Florida.

Still not too many hopes were very high as State headed to #11 and league co-leader Auburn, favored by 17 points. Even LSU didn’t dominate Dog teams in the mid-90s to the same statistical degree as these high-powered Tigers. A funny thing happened down on the plains this un-televised afternoon, however.

The Bulldogs got physical. Really, really physical. They took the track-team Tigers and turned the game into a down-and-dirty brawl.

The real heroes were back in the secondary, as Dameyune Craig only completed 20 of his 54 passes to teammates, and four of ‘em were caught by Bulldogs. Auburn did make a big early strike for 64 yards but undersized safety Tim Nelson jarred the ball free on first-and-goal to preserve a 3-0 State lead. In the second quarter Auburn again got to State’s ten-yard line before substitute safety Anthony Derricks slipped in front of the intended Tiger receiver for the interception and a 90-yard touchdown return.

And just a series later it was Derricks coming up clutch again. The pass was not completed anyway but Derricks legally smashed the receiver, separated his shoulder, and knocked the air out of every Tiger watching. “They started hesitating about catching the ball,” cornerback Kendall Roberson commented.

Meanwhile State’s offense did its job by doing nothing to lose the game. They didn’t produce points until the fourth quarter when fullback Nakia Greer and tight end John Jennings opened a gap for James Johnson to blast through for a 38-yard touchdown tote at 2:41.

Suddenly a reviving program had the sort of win to validate the process. Not that the job was anywhere near done, even after overpowering Alabama in Tuscaloosa a week later. Auburn was able to win the West anyway because State gave it away at the end. Spitting the bit at both Arkansas and in the Egg Bowl against eminently beatable opponents kept the ’97 Bulldogs from going to Atlanta. The ’98 team would redeem this though.

1998 STATE 22, ARKANSAS 21 (Campus) – Sure, the Western Division title was clinched a week later. Here is where the Bulldogs won it, and in fittingly dramatic fashion. Though it’s also fair to suggest unnecessarily traumatic, too. This would not have been nearly so tense had James ‘JJ’ Johnson not strained a hamstring while running all over Alabama a week earlier.

This was the sort of situation Jackie Sherrill’s program had been pointing towards ever since the aforementioned ’96 upset of Alabama, and the ensuing high-protein recruiting classes that made Mississippi State as muscular a bunch as anywhere in the game. Beyond the obligatory annual flop with LSU (something to be redressed a season later) the Bulldogs were bullies on the West block, with a defense that thrived on creating catastrophe and even scoring their own points with frequent forced turnovers. Johnson was fronted by a top-flight line, outstanding tight ends, enough good wideouts to spread out the opposition…and either Wayne Madkin or Matt Wyatt calling cadence to meet the matchups. Oh, and special teams were pretty special, too…as this day reminded.

Because after a first-drive touchdown, with Reggie Kelly catching Madkin’s eight-yard ‘slip’ pattern throw, State couldn’t reach the goal line again. Much as in ’97 the Razorbacks somehow stymied the superior Dog ground game and the home team had to settle for field goals. Including three of them in the second quarter alone for a fragile 19-14 lead. A week after literally fumbling away control of the West race, Clint Stoerner was bombing away for either touchdowns (3) or interceptions (2). The third TD toss put Arkansas in front 21-19 with 21 minutes left.

It took the Dogs all but seven seconds of that to fulfill fate. First they had to stop a 4th-and-1 rush early in the fourth, as UA had suspended their placekicker that week. That seemed for nought when backup quarterback Rob Morgan was deflected and picked. Sacks by rampaging end Ed Smith got the ball back with 4:43 left.

Madkin returned despite a calf pull and had to fall on his own second down fumble. That paled beside the day’s dramatic play, 4th-and-15 on the UA 49-yard line. For whatever reason Arkansas called time to talk about the defense, letting State talk it over too. Two Dog receivers ran down the hashes to clear the middle so split end Kevin Cooper could slant into the open inside. Madkin had to heave it being dragged down and Cooper made the 18-yard catch.

Chris Rainey surprised the Hogs with an end sweep to the 15, then toted twice to set up Brian Hazelwood straightaway-center. He knocked through the record-setting fifth field goal of the day. “I told the seniors on the field goal team this was the last time we get to play here, let’s go out with a bang,” Hazelwood said afterwards.

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