The Biggest Bulldog Wins Part 3

This completes our three-part series on Biggest Bulldog wins in program history. ‘Biggest’ defined as victories that not only secured those teams a place in our arbitrary annals but were pivotal to future successes.

This criteria limits the candidates and eliminates some great-at-the-time days to be sure. In the Part 3 timeframe for example, knocking off #3 Florida at Scott Field in 2000 was fabulous fun, not least for many sacks, two safeties, and a half-dozen visor throws at least. But realistically it was about the last gasp of Jackie Sherrill’s good years, a ‘bookend’ of sorts on a career.

A better case can be made for finally, finally settling some overdue accounts with Auburn in 2012 which was key to a 7-0 start to that season. It’s significance is reduced by how that team limped down the stretch.

Instead we’ve found four wins which not only stood on their own merits but are now seen as decisive in the long-term. Beginning with our admittedly oddest-on-the-surface selection in the whole series.

2004 STATE 38, FLORIDA 31 (Campus) – Who up there a moment, you may say. This doesn’t seem to fit the criteria for a ‘biggest’ win. Sure it was a notable upset and rare success amidst a mostly-dark decade. But what did it lead to that qualifies for counting here?

Glad you asked. Because this can be regarded as maybe the single pivotal event for Bulldog football since December 1990. Not so much for what happened on the field or at the time, but what came after and set all sorts of forces in motion. And hey, it inspired an addition to the SEC’s 2000s dictionary: Croomed. That in itself is a claim on significance.

Sylvester Croom’s hiring, as the SEC’s first African-American head coach, was most of the significance 2004 brought Bulldog football. After an opening night win over lowly Tulane, the Bulldogs dropped five-straight games; the closest a colossal 9-7 defeat by Maine which did more to expose existing program flaws developed over the previous three years. Not that fans care much about such stuff.

So only about 43,000 turned out for the match with #20 Florida—a program with bubbling issues of their own as Ron Zook made the mistake of trying to follow a legend. That, and taking the home team lightly weren’t a good Gator combination as Omarr Conner directed two touchdown drives and State led 17-14 at halftime.

With a tied third-quarter score the day’s key play came via special teams, as Jonathan Lowe returned a punt 73 yards for touchdown. The Gators did re-tie things before the period ended but State was gaining confidence with every snap. Both teams scored again in the fourth, with Jerious Norwood notching his first TD of the day. The second was more dramatic as State was at the Florida 37 in the final minute.

A straight handoff to Norwood was probably, if everyone were honest, designed just to set up potential field goal position. J-Rock did lots better, cracking the line, making a cut and turning on the jets for the stunning touchdown at 0:32.

Again, all very nice in an otherwise lost season…or three. Why count this as a ‘biggest’ win? Consider the aftermath off the field. Zook was fired just about immediately and doing so mid-season allowed Florida an extended search process to pick the right coach. He was found in Utah, and when Urban Meyer showed up in Gainesville he brought an aggressive offensive aide along who within four years would be of age, experience, and attitude for his own top job.

We’re not saying Dan Mullen couldn’t have found his way to Starkville in December 2008 if not for that October 2004 upset. But it sure makes for an interesting discussion.

2007 STATE 17, Ole Miss 14 (Campus) -- We could just as easily and maybe accurately anoint the October victory at #14 Kentucky as the key game of 2007. Certainly without that mid-season success the Bulldogs would have been in fragile condition for the Egg Bowl, instead of already bowl-eligible and with a decent degree of confidence. Or maybe the home win over a struggling Alabama which featured one of the absolute biggest single plays ever by a Bulldog, the 100-yard interception return by Anthony Johnson. Or maybe the September win at Auburn.

Heck, the whole ’07 campaign was a tightrope act after Croom’s fourth club was obliterated on opening night, and national TV, by LSU. And yes, beating Bama meant State would go bowling at last. But if they’d let this one slip away to a 0-7 SEC Rebel team it might not have mattered in more ways than one as we’ll note later.

Oh, Ole Miss was going to fire Ed Orgeron anyway; they’d have enjoyed it a lot more after upsetting State to rub it in. And for three-plus periods the visiting team was in control. It’s still inexplicable how the Bulldogs just were not ready to play this Egg Bowl, yet they clearly weren’t and as a result trailed 14-0 in the fourth period. A bad Rebel defense was making State look worse with a shutout and four first downs.

Finally Wes Carroll and Anthony Dixon got something going, but only after a game-changing decision by Orgeron to go for it on 4th-and-1 at midfield. The run was stuffed and six plays later Carroll flipped a four-yard touchdown pass to Dixon.

Much more drama remained. State blew a good chance to tie with an interception at the Rebel 10 inside seven minutes. Ole Miss ate some clock before punting this time. It wasn’t booted directly to Derek Pegues but that worked in his favor, giving him an angled view of coverage as he fielded on the bounce. Pegues split the first wave of defenders, broke in the clear and got to the goal line after a 75-yard return…and might have dropped the ball in celebration before his lead foot touched the end zone by the way. Fortunately there was no review.

The next Ole Miss punt was fielded at 0:36, enough time for Carroll to complete two passes and set up a 48-yard field goal by Adam Carlson, his longest make of the career and the winning points.

Much like 1991 the Liberty Bowl claimed State immediately, and while they combined with Central Florida to play a numbingly boring game in numbingly cold conditions the Bulldogs won 10-3 as Boobie Dixon vaulted the goal line at 1:54. If he’d known what was coming in 2008 maybe Croom would have retired then and there and been remembered more fondly. However, consider this: the successes and frankly the excitement of 2007 helped seal deals with recruits that another coach would make into winners. And, a coach who might not have been ready to take this job quite yet. By December ’08, he was.

2009 STATE 41, OLE MISS 27 (Campus) – This is how ‘Our State’ began. Even if it was a pair of imports who made it mean more than mere marketing.

First and foremost was Dan Mullen of course. He blew into campus like a tornado and shook things up about as much as any storm with raw energy and epic spring practice rants that had observers covering kids ears…even their own sometimes. Call it tough love or just plain tough but at that juncture the program would not have revived with a softer touch.

The new staff also inherited the framework of a competitive club, most notably an offensive line ready to meld in front of senior Boobie Dixon. The defense would take lumps while putting everything together and becoming really good in 2010. What Mullen lacked were the receivers and a thrower to balance a potent ground game, which meant State played a brutal schedule well but were 4-7 heading into the Egg Bowl. We can always wonder if having a different set of eyes in the booth or a better understanding of the replay process might have meant in a loss to Houston…

…but we also can wonder if no chance to win bowl eligibility just might have left the visiting team a little less concerned about State’s Egg Bowl ambitions. The Rebels were en route to the Cotton Bowl again and likely took this one for granted after the previous year’s blowout.

Because the Bulldog defense was dialed-in, keeping explosive back Dexter McCluster in check while Dixon and Tyson Lee simply avoided making big mistakes in the first half. It took a spectacular end zone catch for Ole Miss to lead 13-10 at the break, surely convinced they’d take care of a routine second half.

Which brought literally into play the second key character in this intrastate squabble. To this day it’s hard to figure why Sylvester Croom signed Chris Relf, since the Montgomery kid didn’t meet any ‘west coast’ offense criteria. Maybe he had a notion to make the big, fast, strong guy something other than a quarterback?

What Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning did was transform Relf into a capable quarterback, ideal for a run-spread with just enough arm skills…and hard a nose as ever put into a maroon helmet at getting the tough yards on his own. He also became the ultimate Rebel rouser and this was his true debut.

Relf directed a short drive to open the second half for a tying field goal by Derek DePasquale; then getting the ball back the Bulldogs went 70 yards in 13 grinding plays. The go-ahead came with Ole Miss expecting run; instead Relf rolled, tight end Marcus Green got open in the end zone and make a big-time grab for the lead. Safety Charles Mitchell intercepted Jevon Sneed at the 34 and four plays later Chad Bumphis spun away from a tackle for the game-breaking touchdown pass play.

From there it was just a matter of matching scores, as Relf ran it in himself for a ten-yard touchdown; then corner Corey Broomfield jumped the route to pick off Sneed. As he finished the 64-yard return suddenly an entire fan base began to buy into the ‘Our State’ idea. And despite the inevitable stumbles in the five years since, the proud proclamation has been tough to dispute.

2010 STATE 24, Georgia 12 (Campus) – To be clear, we can make an equal case for beating #22 Florida three weeks later. In fact that road victory might have been more impressive as it came after exhilarating wins over Georgia and at Houston, and those Dogs had enough energy and emotion left to complete a program-transforming stretch.

The first success of the four-straight gets the nod because, well, it got everything started. Not just for that team but the entire program, since winning an Egg Bowl was great but not a breakthrough. Besides, regardless of who coaches State teams Georgia always won the canine matchup.

Not this time.

Honor requires reminding that Georgia was without suspended home-run threat A.J. Green. And that Aaron (no relation this side of Scotland) Murray was just coming into his own as a great college quarterback. By the same token the home Bulldogs weren’t entirely sure who or what they were after losses to ranked Auburn (eventual BCS champs though had Corey Broomfield stood two inches taller who knows how that season would have played out?) and LSU.

It took two series to show what the Dog defense had with Fletcher Cox inside, K.J. Wright and Chris White backing the line brilliantly, John Banks and Broomfield flanking Charles Mitchell in the secondary. Oh, and Nickoe Whitley bringing the big hits. He’s forever sainted at State for those fumbles forced in his final 2013 games, but what he did to Washaun Ealey on Georgia’s second turn was his real Dog debut. Ealey’s catch inside the five was a sure score except Whitley separated him from the ball at the goal line and recovered the fumble himself.

This was after Chris Relf and Vick Ballard powered State to an opening touchdown that held up through three quarters for a 7-6 lead as the other Dogs could only manage field goals. State’s Sean Brauchle got one of his own to open the final period but a 10-6 margin wasn’t comfortable no matter how stout the defense was.

17-6 was a whole ‘nother matter. Relf and Ballard combined for eight rushes and one pass hook-up as State drove from their seven-yard line to the Georgia 33. On first down the visiting Dogs were sure another run was coming. Instead Relf pulled off a play-fake as pretty as any better-regarded passing quarterback could have called; and Arceto Clark made a remarkable under-pressure catch for what became the decisive touchdown at 4:22.

Georgia had no choice but go for 4th-and-9 at their 21 and Wright hurried Murray into missing. Relf ran twice and Ballard once, for the final yard at 3:15. The Bulldogs didn’t mind Georgia scoring in response and using most of the remaining time in the process.

Big as the win was for club confidence, ensuing weeks showed something different about Mullen’s program. They didn’t settle for an isolated success but built on it by beating Alcorn State, outscoring a Houston team missing their quarterback (something also worth noting about Mullen’s tenure is a lot of good luck), and gutting out the Gainesville trip as Florida missed its tying field goal. Team and fans got to celebrate New Years at the Gator Bowl, beginning the ongoing record-run of post-season play which stands at four years…

…and counting. Thanks to the 4-0 start this season, it also seems safe to count on extending the record to five years too. And depending on how 2014 plays out and beyond someday last weekend’s victory at Baton Rouge might also be regarded among the biggest Bulldog wins.

PREVIOUS SELECTIONS: 1935 Army, 1940 Alabama, 1961 Auburn, 1963 Ole Miss tie, 1974 Memphis State, 1980 Alabama, 1991 Texas, 1996 Alabama, 1997 Auburn, 1998 Arkansas.

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