That is indeed assumed when #23 (AP) Mississippi State hosts #19 Ole Miss in this year’s edition of the Battle for the Golden Egg. It is Coach Dan Mullen’s seventh Egg Bowl at State and he is 4-2 in the rivalry.
For Diaz it is only the second, as he spent just one season on Mullen’s staff during that first stint as Dog defensive coordinator. It was a good one though, a victory in Oxford in 2010 and the only road win by either side since 2003.
But in ’10 the Bulldogs were favored. This time, it is practically a toss-up. Diaz discussed the formidable matchup the Rebel offense presents, as well as his own impressions of this game’s meaning in the bigger picture.
What have you seen of Ole Miss? “An outstanding offense, obviously. Very talented, many, many weapons that they can beat you with. And a quarterback with arm talent to make throws from sideline to sideline and seems to enjoy the challenge to show how far he can throw a football. And they’ve got many guys that can go down the field and get it.”
“So they’re an offense that on every play they have a chance to get explosive on you. It’s an offense that demands your attention on ever play because they’re in a constant state of attack.”
What has allowed their offense to hit a new gear the last couple of weeks? “Its like all of us, I think they’re getting better, he’s getting more experience in terms of what they’re seeing. And more comfortable with just playing week-in and week-out in the SEC and understanding what’s going to be open and what’s not based on coverage.
“And he’s done a good job of just keeping the ball from harm’s way. And he’s got wide receivers that just go make plays for him anyway in one-on-one situations. He’s not afraid to challenge the defender with his man there. The old expression one-on-one is one-on-none to them, they’ve got that mentality.”
Zach Jackson is kind of overshadowed but what has he meant as a senior linebacker? “When you have a defense with very few seniors anyway, you need those guys. And a guy like Zach who has been a role player for most of his career, you need those guys to be the best version of them they can be. Zach’s played a lot of roles for us this year. But one thing I told after Saturday, he may have made the play of the season.”
“That fourth down when he stayed in coverage on Henry on the corner route and didn’t panic…a lot of guys in that situation would panic and draw a pass interference penalty. For staying in coverage and really forcing (Brandon Allen) to make a perfect throw, that’s the play that really turned the game around and allowed us to fight off the ropes. You like to see your seniors make plays like that in games so they can remember for the rest of their lives.”
How does Ole Miss’ passing attack change your defensive mentality, is it still take away the run first? “Well, what they do a fantastic job of is they pass it on running plays. So they don’t have a run called where that they don’t have a pass attached to it, or very rarely do they. So you’re always defending both.”
“In that style of football all eleven have to play on every snap. Because it’s a run but the run gap responsibility goes sideline to sideline. They may call an inside run and then they throw the bubble screen; or they may throw it deep to the X. That’s a running play. So to me it’s all the same, you have to stop basically everything on every play which is very stressful of course.”
You were on the 2010 staff that won the Egg Bowl, what makes this game important? “Well, it’s important because to me it captures the essence of this state. It’s the essence of their program vs. the essence of our program. It’s who they are as a university and what they represent, and who we are as a University and what we represent.”
“I think what’s neat about my second time-around in the Egg Bowl is with the status of both programs elevated, you know. And with both teams being in the top-25 now for two years in a row, it really shines a really positive light on the entire state of Mississippi and the talent and the high school football in this state.”
“But all that being said, it’s really important that we win the game. It’s important for our fans and everybody this state. It’s like a big small town and everybody knows everybody and you want to make sure you’ve got 365 days of that chip on the shoulder, that you won the game.”
Was there a point this game became important to you? “Yeah, if you think about it, you go back to coming off the ’09 season when I got here and how important that win in Dan’s first year was. That really was what we had. We were 5-7 and that whole off-season I was here we were coming off a 5-7 season, but we had won and we carried around that Egg Bowl trophy everywhere we went. That really gave the program that first initial boost which I felt led into the nine-win season in 2010.”
“You couldn’t help but sense how important that game was. It was what we had at that moment. And really everything I feel that this program has accomplished since that moment has been built off that first Egg Bowl, Anthony Dixon and all those guys. And certainly to win it there (in 2010), there’s nothing more fun than winning on your rival’s turf. Which is why we have to protect ours this weekend. So to win there in 2010 was certainly the highlight of that season as well.”
Why is it so difficult to win on your opponent’s turf, nine times of the last ten games the home team has won? “Well it’s hard to win in the SEC anyway. What we saw last week, there’s just that little extra level of fight that you have on the road. Not to mention the procedural things like crowd noise and things like that.”
“Rivalry games are huge momentum games. A big play that happens in a game is a bigger play in a rivalry game. Because you feel the ups and downs so much more in a game like that. So certainly to have the crowd behind you when something positive happens; or to have the crowd behind you to help rebound when something negative happens…”
“These are obviously two good football teams, both teams are going to land punches on Saturday. To have that crowd behind you and continue to try to put them under that adversity constant, I think the record shows why it’s hard to win in someone else’s stadium.”