Ole Miss - Mississippi State/USA Today Images

Smoke if You Got 'Em; Jiles Picks and Six; Giving the Rebs Fitz; and Can Bulldogs Bowl Again?

SMOKED: Like most campuses, the Ole Miss stadium is a tobacco-free zone. That didn’t stop Mississippi State from indulging. After lighting up the Rebels, the Bulldogs lit up a stash of victory cigars provided by long-time manager Phil Silva.

Coach Dan Mullen even brought his to the post-game presser. Unlit, of course, but on proud display. “It’s pretty smoky in that locker room. They handed me one. I figured this might be a smoke-free media room so I didn’t light-up before I got in here.”

The coach was being nice considering how much smoke the media corps generates on its own. He did not indicate if any Dogs were checked for proper age to have tobacco. According to DT A.J. Jefferson, all were offered by Silva.

“He said you have to win the Egg Bowl to get them. It’s been two years since he had to get them out,” Jefferson said. Though as a senior, “I should have got two!”

 

PARTY MAN: By now fans understand how popular Jefferson is with the press and his weekly interview-night quips about ‘Tequila Tuesday’ or ‘Whisky Wednesday’. So was winning the Egg Bowl a ‘Champagne Saturday’ for celebrating?

“Oh, man, all I’m going to say is come to the Cotton District, go to the Bin, drinks on AJ tonight, alright?!” Jefferson grinned. “It feels amazing.”

The raw relief was obvious on upperclassman faces, too. None wanted to exit their last (possibly, read further) college locker room on a loss, much less to the rival of all rivals. So tensions were high for the visiting team.

Apparently also for the home side. As the squads assembled for the coin toss, a number of Rebels made their way over half-field into where the Bulldogs were hyping themselves up before the Ole Miss student section. Some mingling, then mouthing ensued with staff separating everyone. It had a contrived look from afar though, as if the home team wanted to manufacture some emotions.

“None of us shook hands,” Jefferson said. He wasn’t part of it as a team co-captain at the coin toss. “There was some talking going on back and forth. I looked to my right and both our teams were right there.”

As the first half developed, Jefferson said Mullen figured that his players were a little too amped, especially on defense. “Coach Mullen knew we were kind of trying to do too much just because of who it was. He got in there (halftime), calmed us down.”

Afterwards, calm vanished into celebrating. The Bulldogs were met at their Seal Center HQ by a fine crowd as well. What fans don’t get to see is the annual re-setting of the Egg Bowl Countdown Clock that was installed by Mullen upon arrival at State.

Yes, it is still there if not talked about much. Jefferson certainly noticed it.

“Oh, man, the whole time this week I’m taking pictures on my phone. Just going back and forth, taking pictures of, taking pictures of. I woke up this morning like, it’s here!”

And now A.J. doesn’t need to look at that clock ever again.

 

PICKED APART: This has not been a fun fall for CB Cedric Jiles. For that matter neither was the end of his summer, breaking a forearm in training camp when he was in-line for a senior season starting job.

Jiles returned for the Auburn game and did start then, as well as the rest of the schedule…up to the Egg Bowl. Production has been erratic to be charitable, with Jiles struggling not just in coverage but more so with tackling.

Yet as the Egg Bowl wound down and Ole Miss was heaving the ball all around, Jiles’ big moment of 2016 came on about his last chance. A pass went off running back Akeem Judd’s hands and right to Jiles curling over in support. Jiles took a stride the other way, then another, then…it was a race to the other goal line 74 yards away that he won with a move or two en route.

So after playing in parts of five seasons, but only 34 games due to a hand injury, knee surgeries, and now the arm, Cedric Jiles got his first career interception. And scored it, too. Mullen was asked about Jiles’ resilience in a tough senior season.

“Ha!, His senior season? His whole career!” the coach said. A career that has seen more setbacks and interruptions than entire units. “And it can get you down,” said Mullen. “He kept battling and I’m so glad for him to make that play.”

More glad than Jiles knew, too. Though State led 48-20 at the time, Mullen was still coaching hard. “They can score pretty fast. And the way our year’s gone, five minutes left? I’m paranoid as a coach. Just keep playing because strange things can happen out there. But once he did it to finish off the game it was huge.”

Jiles’s pick-six did seal things. The biggest interception came much earlier when CB Jamal Peters, who got the start ahead of Jiles, made an amazing one-handed deflect and grab in the end zone. State cashed in the clutch turnover with a touchdown drive for a 27-10 lead.

Yet a drive earlier Peters had a deflected pass on and then off both hands. His second chance was much harder, and more clutch too.

“It was huge,” MLB Richie Brown said. “We all made fun of him for dropping the easy one and catching the hard one!”

 

BOWLING BULLDOGS? Now, on to the other post-game reward. Or at least, the potential for Mississippi State to play in post-season. Going into the last regular season week it was mostly theoretical that as a 5-7 team the Bulldogs could yet be eligible for bowl selection.

The criteria being, bowls slots left open by conferences without enough six-win teams; and a 5-win team having a high enough APR. State began the week still a long shot as there were nearly a dozen teams with better graduation rates including SEC East Vanderbilt.

And nothing would have mattered without beating Ole Miss. As the Bulldogs built the second half lead though some score-checking began in the press box, and results everywhere were going State’s way. Then Vanderbilt beat Tennessee to qualify anyway.

By some estimations, all unofficial of course, Mississippi State would be the last team ‘in’ for a bowl berth. In fact representatives of both the Liberty and Independence bowls came to Mullen’s post-game and heard the subject raised.

“We’re ready, wooo-ooo!” Mullen laughed. “We’ve got good grades!” The reps stayed to talk with athletic director John Cohen after Mullen finished. Their hands may be tied by being SEC-affiliated bowls though, and the league has 11 teams eligible now. Alabama is expected to win the league title next weekend and advance to the College Football Playoff.

That leaves ten bowl slots to fill and the right number of teams to do it. Bowls have some flexibility in the picking order based on last-trips and such things, but as of now State’s best chance would be a non-affiliated bowl. Distance doesn’t bother Mullen or team.

He wants the bowl game if for no other reason than the December extra practices. The trends are encouraging, at least. “ If we get in there’s Christmas gifts I need to ship and send out!” Mullen said. “If we get the opportunity I’ll love it. If we don’t…”

Mullen is professional enough to feel bad for peers, some of them friends, who are losing bowl eligibility right now. Yet that is what is giving State it’s chance, too.

“But we’ll see. I don’t know and I guess it’s John’s decision too. I know this, if we do get the opportunity as always you’re going to get a team that plays really hard. You’re going to get a fan base that is passionate about their team and is going to show up and support us.

“So if we get that opportunity, for all the things that have gone wrong for us this year maybe the Good Lord is going to look down on us and give us a little blessing and one more opportunity to play this year.”

That would also extend the record-bowling streak to seven years, out of Mullen’s eight at State.

 

GIVING ‘EM FITZ: The sheer statistics have made good reading. But quarterbacking is about winning, and in his first Egg Bowl action Nick Fitzgerald was. Yes it was his third time at the game but 2014 was a redshirt year; and in 2015 Dak Prescott took every snap.

The delayed debut was absolutely worth it. Fitzgerald both won the game that matters most, and smashed records in the process. His 258 rushing yards were not only the most by a Bulldog quarterback in any game ever; it was the most by any Bulldog ever, surpassing Anthony Dixon’s 252 yards in—irony alert—the 2009 Egg Bowl. Or Mullen’s first victory in the rivalry.

In the process Fitzgerald vaporized Dak Prescott’s season-rushing record by a Bulldog quarterback set in 2014, in 13 games. Of course Fitzgerald came into his game-12 only a yard behind so that was assumed. But by the time he was done this evening he had 1,243 on the season. That’s third-most by any SEC signal-caller in history behind only Cam Newton (1,473 in 14 games 2010) and Johnny Manziel (1,410, 13, 2013).

Now, want the really impressive fact? Fitzgerald got his yards on just 14 carries. Realistically just 12 because he took one sack and ate the ball for no gain on an option play. And as Mullen noted, several of the runs weren’t called, but reads where Fitzgerald opted to hold on and take off.

So what was he reading in the Rebels defense that gave such openings? “Just different things. Leverage on the outside, or end crashing in or a ‘backer playing inside on the run. You could pull and get around the edge.”

Or tear on up the middle as Fitzgerald did for his 61-yard touchdown tote. There were runs Fitzgerald had to shed a tackler, but others nobody laid a hand on him. “It’s always great when you’re running and no one is around you.”

It was Fitzgerald’s record seventh 100-yard rushing game this year. Get him to a bowl game and who knows if the SEC record for a quarterback will last?

 

BOWING OUT: If the Bulldogs do bowl, one of them will have to take-back a pre-game social media message. QB Damian Williams announced this way that he was playing his final Bulldog game, though of course he couldn’t know if he’d get to play or not. Williams has only seen the field in three games this junior year.

That junior year is the key. Williams won’t say where but he is looking to transfer. Mullen was aware. “We’ve had a little discussion about it but we don’t know the actual plans,” the coach said. “He’s finished his degree.”

As it turned out Williams did get to play. When Fitzgerald had his helmet come off on a third quarter keeper the starter had to go to the sideline by rule. Mullen let Williams take care of the one play, handing off to RB Aeris Williams for a five-yard gain with no fuss or muss.

“I give him a lot of credit, you’re talking about a guy who’s always ready,” Mullen said. “Call my number, I’ve prepared the right way. So we’ll work with him and help him however we can help him in the future.”

An irony is Williams has started one college game. It was as a true 2013 freshman, and in the Egg Bowl. Williams didn’t finish it off, Dak Prescott entered in the fourth quarter and won it in overtime. Yet Williams can always say he is 1-0 as a starter against Ole Miss.

 

RECORD ROSS: WR Fred Ross had just one catch in his last regular season game. It was a good one though. A game-breaker even.

With the Dog defense forcing a hugely important 4th-and-1 stop to hold a 27-20 lead early in the third quarter the offense needed to give them more margin. But State faced 4th-and-3 on the Rebel 38, too far to kick and too close to punt. Mullen went for it and called a wide receiver screen with Ross finally getting his hands on the ball in traffic.

Using RB Aeris Williams’ block Ross got down the left sideline for the touchdown, 34-20 lead, and a game just about under control. The touchdown was Ross’ 22nd, tying him with former teammate De’Runnya Wilson for second on the career list at State. Chad Bumphis holds the mark with 24.

Ross also extended the two career records he does hold, now with 195 catches and 2,484 yards. Plus, he and Fitzgerald have now combined for 11 touchdowns, all this season. That ties them for fifth-place at State in touchdown combos with Derrick Taite-to-Eric Moulds.

 

MULLEN’S MARK: The victory makes Dan Mullen 5-3 in the rivalry. That ties him with Allyn McKeen for most victories over Ole Miss; behind Jackie Sherrill’s 7-6 record.

Mullen is right behind Sherrill for another mark: victories in Oxford. Sherrill had three (1994, ’96, ’98); now Mullen has wins in 2010 and ’16 on the most hostile of fields. That ties him too with McKeen.

The record has to be qualified a bit of course with so many meetings either in Jackson or other in-state sites.


Gene's Page Top Stories