The tag-team of Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams pounded 449 combined rushing yards and two touchdowns apiece as Mississippi State routed host Ole Miss 55-20. This was the second-most points ever scored by either team in the 115-year-old rivalry. It also vented two years of Bulldog steam built over frustrating losses in 2014 and ’15.
Thus the post-game field parade was electric even by Egg Bowl standards. “Unreal,” senior LB Richie Brown said. “A lot of emotions. We’ve waited a while to get this trophy back. It’s exciting.”
“I remember last year watching those guys run around our place with that trophy,” senior WR Fred Ross said. “I didn’t like it at all. Man it feels so good to finally have that trophy back.”
A team wins the trophy back. A couple of Bulldogs made the winning plays. Quarterback Fitzgerald didn’t simply smash the program Egg Bowl rushing record with his 258 yards. He set the Mississippi State game record, period.
And on only 14 rushes, or realistically just a dozen as Fitzgerald took one sack and ate the ball at the line of scrimmage another time. On his 12 true totes, he averaged almost 22 yards. Though he did have to break his share of tackles on many a carry, there were other outright breakaways with Rebels left in his wake.
“It’s always great when you’re running and no one is around you,” Fitzgerald said. “In front of this crowd to do that is surreal.”
Surreal it was. Certainly so in the last half as Fitzgerald dashed 61 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter; then 31 more in four a fourth-quarter score. His longest carry of 70 yards was in the first period though, and when State was trailing 10-6. He was stopped at the Rebel ten-yard line but only needed two snaps and a throw to WR Donald Gray to regain the lead. For good, as it turned out.
Playing from ahead was truly key to victory, too. It allowed State to stick to the power-run gameplan that Ole Miss was most vulnerable to, as well as mix in the occasional pass play. Fitzgerald only threw 17 balls all afternoon, completing eight for a modest 109 yards. But not modest production as three of those catches went for touchdowns.
The quarterback had ground-pounding help, too. Classmate Williams got 25 touches and made 191 yards off them and was never stopped for a loss. None of it was a surprise to the soph.
“Once I saw how the defense was going to play and my line kept on blocking, it just went well for me.” The offensive staff didn’t mess much with success either. Only three other Dogs had a rushing play, one each. This was Fitzgerald’s and Williams’ day to run wild, beginning on first down when Williams broke off a clean 16 yards right up the Rebel gut.
“The first series,” Fitzgerald said was when he knew the ground game was all-go. “Aeris and the rest of the running backs were running extremely hard, extremely well, they couldn’t tackle them. It goes to the heart of our offensive line, they played their butts off today and really showed-out.”
Mississippi State didn’t punch first though, as both teams swapped punts. On their second turn the Rebels showed their mid-field strength with a drive to the five-yard line. Sideline confusion burned two timeouts before they settled for a short field goal at 7:43.
The Bulldogs trumped it as Fitzgerald threw for 18 and 13 yards around his own 13-yard rush. Williams finished it with another bolt through the middle from 16 yards out. But State missed the PAT. Ole Miss answered in kind on a five-play drive, each snap producing first-down gains along with a fine pylon-throw from Shea Patterson to Damore’ea Stringfellow with CB Chris Rayford draped on his back.
That was when Fitzgerald took off on a second-down jaunt for the 70 yards. Gray made a highlight play of his own on the touchdown, catching in the backfield and bouncing off safety Derrick Jones and stretching across the goal.
A suddenly-gritty Dog defense made its own statement with a stop and punt. Seven State plays later Williams was back in the end zone from 13 yards out for the 20-10 lead. The defense also made a game-changing play of its own. Ole Miss got back in the red zone where Patterson fired for Markell Pack. S Jamal Peters held inside position, batted the ball with one hand before an amazing grab in the end zone.
Fitzgerald used the earned-break with a fast drive on the ground to the Rebel 24, then sold another run play. Ole Miss bit, WR Malik Dear drifted down the left slot unnoticed except by his quarterback for the touchdown and 27-10 lead.
Yet with two paws on Rebel necks, the Bulldogs let up. On special teams. Ole Miss lined up to punt, and faked it for a first down run of 14 yards. That seemed to put State on its own heels as the Rebels rode the change of momentum to another Patterson-to-Stringfellow touchdown. They also got the ball back with 2:49 left in the half.
“I’m sitting there like, did they just get this?!” DT A.J. Jefferson said. “But the biggest thing Coach (Peter) Sirmon says, is play the next down.”
Or at least the next series. After Ole Miss reached the Bulldog 20, a sack by DE Jonathan Calvin and ground call forced a field goal. It did narrow the halftime margin to 27-20, but it gave the defense more encouragement. Halftime game them a chance to adapt, too.
“The first half we had a few runs here and there and different fits we were missing by one gap, one person,” Brown said. “We figured those out so that worked out great. Then we figured out how to contain the quarterback, keep him in the pocket, and plaster all the receivers.”
The turning point was turning-away the home team on 4th-and-1 after reaching State’s 17 to open their half. Akeem Judd never had a chance, strung out and stopped for a loss at 9:49. Fitzgerald again built on a defensive takeaway with a long touchdown drive.
The key was on 3rd-and-4 at the State 36. Ole Miss expected a keeper or handoff; Fitzgerald rolled to his left side and floated the ball to TE Jordan Thomas. Not only did the tight end make the marker but he was roughed out of bounds for 15 more yards.
State still had a 4th-and-3 at the 38 though. Mullen passed on punting and called a pass. Fitzgerald got it to Ross in the left flat with Williams in front taking care of Jaylon Jones and making jusssst enough room on the sideline. “That was big-time,” said Ross.
“I caught the pass and turned the corner. I saw A-Train telling me ‘come on!’ I followed him and he led me to the end zone so that was his touchdown.”
The 34-20 lead changed everything as Ole Miss went from tempo to desperate. Calvin got a second sack of Patterson to force a punt and three offensive snaps later Fitzgerald was gone on his 61-yard touchdown dash practically untouched.
Ole Miss lost the ball on downs again as Patterson made a freshman-like throw behind his receiver on 4th-and-5 at midfield. State didn’t score this time as Fitzgerald fumbled for his only mistake. No harm came as Patterson again missed on fourth down. An 11-play drive ended with Fitzgerald cutting around and through for the 31-yard touchdown at 5:09.
State’s other points were fittingly provided by defense. A pass ricocheted off a Rebel receiver and into CB Cedric Jiles’ hands at the Bulldog 26. There was nobody in his way for the 74-yard touchdown return. Ole Miss was so demoralized that on their last possession the Rebels didn’t even waste another fourth down attempt. They punted it away.
A Rebel offense with 51 snaps and 358 yards at halftime was crushed in the second half, with just 170 yards and zero points. It was the game State’s downtrodden defense had been working for all fall.
“The defense as a whole stepped up and made the plays,” said Brown. “Early on we were struggling a little bit. We bent but we never broke. We kept fighting, putting the ball down, replaying the downs and just attacking.
The attacking ultimately wore down Ole Miss. Rookie Patterson had flashes and numbers with 320 yards on 27-of-48 passing. He was picked twice though. The Rebel ground game was better than usual with 208 yards, 107 of that from Judd.
Yet the Bulldogs made just enough stops and takeaways to negate their ‘tween-the-20s approach. Fitzgerald and offense knew what to do from there. A huge second half gave State the total yardage edge, 566 to 528, and the Bulldogs netted 8.8 each offensive snap.
They did it the old-school way with a modern read-option attack Ole Miss couldn’t slow nor stop. “Aeris did a great job carrying the ball, carrying it hard,” Ross said. “And Nick did a great job managing the game and busted some big plays. He put the team on his back.”
And, made sure the Golden Egg was safely delivered to the bus for a happy home ride. The Bulldogs ended the regular season 5-7, 3-5 SEC and with some increasingly realistic chances of a bowl invitation. Representatives of the Liberty and Independence bowls both attended Coach Dan Mullen’s post-game press conference, just in case opportunity arises.
“We’re here. We’re ready. We’ve got good grades!” quipped Mullen, now 5-3 in the rivalry. A bid, even under these circumstances, would extend Mississippi State's record post-season run to seven years. But if there is no post-season for this 2016 team, they went out winners in the one that mattered as their coach had said all week.
“Let’s go out and finish this season the right way, Mullen told his team. “The right way. And you have the next 9 months of feeling like a million dollars.”