As he ought be. Not only are the Mississippi State stakes as high as possible for the 12th game of this season. Fate has ordained the Bulldogs put their Southeastern Conference and College Football Playoffs on the line as part of the 2014 Battle for the Golden Egg.
Which is all well-and-good for #4-ranked State. Every team dreams of having something great to play for in the final week of their regular season. So hopes don’t get much higher than when berths in Championship Games and Playoffs are there for the winning.
At the same time such stakes can become Dog distractions. If senior safety Hughes hasn’t been in exactly this sort of situation, he’s seen his share of big games. To hear the squad’s co-captain talk, what is on the line shouldn’t be first on MSU minds.
“Honestly, we just try to take it one game at a time. What I’m telling everybody on the team is all we’ve got to do is go up there and execute. All we’ve got to do is execute our assignments, play with juice, play with passion. Just play like we always play, everything is going to work out for us.”
This senior season has worked out well for Hughes. Coming off a junior year that ended after just six snaps with a serious leg injury, Hughes has started ten of the eleven games at strong safety. Mississippi State’s regular 1A/1B rotation hasn’t allowed as many snaps as most starters get, hence a 23-total tackle stat line going into the last weekend.
But Hughes makes the most of his chances, and has celebrated the senior year with his first two career interceptions. The first came against Southern Mississippi ironically enough, considering he graduated from Oak Grove High in the Hattiesburg area. And that night Hughes played a part in MSU history. He scooped a field goal blocked by DE Preston Smith and returned it 68 yards, which as best can be known is the first Bulldog touchdown ever off a blocked placekick.
The other pick came in State’s pivotal victory against Auburn, which vaulted the Bulldogs to #1 in the rankings for five weeks. Now comes the final regular-season opportunity, and just like the opening game there’s a marked degree of irony. Father and position Coach Tony Hughes spent the 2005-07 seasons working at Ole Miss, and Jay played at Oxford High those years.
Then came the years near Dad’s alma mater Southern Miss. So how did Jay end up a Bulldog?
“It was more of a family environment here. I felt at home. Plus a lot of people I came in with I already knew them from high school. So that definitely played a role in my decision making.”
A decision which has led to a productive college career, including three Egg Bowl wins as a redshirt, player, or last season observer after opening-game injury. Hughes had to watch Mississippi State’s dramatic overtime victory on Scott Field, on a night the Dog defense was at their absolute 2013 best by not allowing an offensive touchdown.
It was quite a contrast to the previous year in Oxford, when the Rebels went on a third-quarter tear to snap a three-season losing string in the rivalry. Hughes played in that game…and it hurt. “A lot. It definitely wasn’t a good feeling walking off that field. Their fans, you know how they are.
“I told myself and Coach Mullen even told us, that we’ll never have that feeling again. I never want that feeling again so I’m going to do everything in my power and in practice this week, with treatments and everything, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Easier said than schemed. The Rebels have taken some lumps in the second half of their schedule but not for lack of ability and play-makers. Even while being shut out at Arkansas, their offense moved the ball only to have turnovers stop them more than the Razorbacks. From his safety’s perspective Hughes appreciates the threat Ole Miss presents, particularly with their potent passing.
Sure, losing explosive wideout Laquon Treadwell was a blow. Somebody else just steps in and steps up, Hughes said.
”I think in losing him they lost a piece of their offense. But they’re still a SEC football team so they’re going to have play makers all over the field. So I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us to stop those guys and stop their momentum throughout the game.”
“We’re definitely going to have to get after the quarterback. Get close to their receiver, you know, challenge their routes. Just play Bulldog football, Bulldog defense.”
Bulldog football has produced a record ten regular-season victories already. The lone loss at Alabama means State needs help to take the SEC’s Western Division berth in the league Championship Game. Then again, none of that matters if the Dogs don’t take care of their own business against a rival eager to play SEC spoiler. And a loss Saturday will effectively eliminate Mississippi State from the College Football Playoffs picture.
The trick this game-week is keeping team attention fixed on, well, this week only. Despite all the questioning and comments from classmates, friends, fans, and of course media, Hughes figures the nature of this game guarantees focus.
“I think it definitely helps,” he said. Especially so with younger Dogs who haven’t the same long Egg Bowl exposure as their elders who’ve enjoyed the success…and felt the sting of defeat, too. He said the message seems to have gotten across to the rest of State’s roster.
“I feel like they already know! I feel like they already knew when they walked in the building what kind of week it was going to be. Coach Mullen definitely emphasized this is a different week. No matter what the record is this is the most important week of the season.”
“It feels good going to Oxford 10-1. But it’s another opportunity to go 11-1, that’s how I look at it. It’s going to be a big day, man. It’s going to be a big day up there and I’m definitely excited about it. The ties that I have up there, I know a lot of people up there so it’s definitely going to be important for me to play well as an individual.”