The win came in Maine's first-ever meeting with a Southeastern Conference club, and in a game arranged by State to fill the schedule void created by Baylor's refusal to return a 1995 game. This matchup did not turn out as planned, and State (1-2) lost for the first time ever to a Division I-AA program since the NCAA went to separate divisions in the late 1970s. Obviously no Bulldog appreciated helping their guests make history.
"It was a lot of heads down," linebacker Clarence McDougal said of the stunned State locker room. "It's not a good feeling that we lost to a I-AA team. They're good, but I don't know."
First-year Coach Sylvester Croom knew, and all-too-well, what happened to send the Bulldogs to what many will now regard as the most embarrassing loss in program annals. "We didn't take advantage of opportunities," Croom said. "And I knew if we did not that there was a strong possibility this could happen if we didn't get off to a good start and put this game away early."
Mississippi State did neither. The Bulldogs did manage to put a touchdown on the scoreboard in the opening quarter. But they failed to convert on at least four more prime opportunities to stretch the margin, and every one loomed large when the Bears finally did rally.
"Maine came in and showed us up tonight," Conner said.
The Bears, ranked #13 in their Division, certainly showed up when it mattered most. Down 7-0 at intermission they put together their only real drives of the night. Maine went 39 yards in six plays to get on the scoreboard with a third-quarter field goal. Then, after the Bulldogs fumbled the ball away only two yards shy of a clinching touchdown, the Black Bears took it the other way…all the other way, on a 80-yard surge that gave them a lead and ultimately the win.
"I told them they (Maine) would fight to the end and they were capable of winning the football game," said Croom. Unfortunately he was correct.
"They might be a lower Division but they're pretty good," tight end Eric Butler said. "On any given night a team can come out and beat you, no matter where they're from."
Yet the ‘any given night' attitude wasn't enough to prevent a crashing Dog downfall. After turning the second possession of the first quarter into a 7-0 lead State seemed to be following the expected script of inter-Divisional play. Conner directed the offense 67 yards in seven plays with a 18-yard strike to Butler netting the touchdown at 3:06.
But that would be the only points for State, despite some decent offensive statistics. MSU ended with 374 yards, 5.2 per play, compared to the 226 and 4.0 for the Bears. The Dogs ran 16 more plays and held the better field position for most of the evening.
And still lost. "We moved the ball up and down the field, we had opportunities to score," Croom said. "We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and we didn't take advantage of them."
Those missed opportunities were painfully obvious. After the first-quarter touchdown State would venture into the Black Bear ‘red zone' four more times…three of them in the second period. The results were zero points and boundless frustration. "It seemed every time we got close to the goal line something bad happened," said Butler. Did it ever, as a second-quarter review showed:
…after driving 81 yards a sack forced the Dogs to settle for a field-goal try that PK Keith Andrews missed from 31-yards out.
…safety Jeramie Johnson promptly intercepted Whitcomb and ran the ball back 35 yards to the Bear 11-yard line. Three plays later Conner hit Butler at the three, only to have Agean Robinson wrestle the ball away for a forced turnover.
…upon getting the ball back at midfield via a punt State drove as far as the 14-yard line. Conner tried to hit Jason Husband but was picked off by John Baumgartner at the two. Thus the lead was still a mere touchdown at halftime.
"We didn't execute like we were supposed to," Conner said. "I'd throw an interception or we got stripped or missed the field goal."
While the Bulldogs sputtered the Black Bears gained confidence and then created some opportunity of their own. First they changed the field-position equation with a 41-yard pass play early in the quarter. That series produced no points but the next did as kicker Mike Mellow broke up the shutout with his 31-yard field goal at 5:20 of the period.
Still Mississippi State lead deep into the final quarter, and the home team was poised to put it away with the only real extended drive of the night. Eleven plays took the Bulldogs from their 30-yard line to the Bear six with the clock inside of six minutes, and on second down tailback Fred Reid turned the right end and headed for the corner. He was met by Baumgartner at the two-yard line.
The ball came loose as Reid tried for a bit more ground, and though it appeared to roll outside of the pylon the officials ruled it had gone through the end zone for a touchback. Maine received possession with seven minutes left to come back. The Bears barely needed four of them.
Whitcomb hit Ryan Waller for gains of 20 and 25 yards in a eight-play drive culminating in the touchdown toss to McMahan. On first down from the MSU 17-yard line the wideout slipped inside freshman cornerback Mario Bobo and made the sliding catch just inside the goal line. Michael Heard blocked the PAT but the Dogs were now behind.
There was time left for State to respond and a couple of tough first downs had the Dogs on their 47-yard line inside of 90 seconds. But the Bears, who had freely blitzed most of the evening, rushed more men than five blockers could deflect and McGowan caught Conner for a loss of 18 yards. Two missed passes later, with 1:10 on the clock and facing 4th-and-28, Croom called for a punt.
Much of the remaining crowd disagreed but the tactic did work as planned. Maine had to punt it back and State had the ball with 0:15 left at the 34-yard line. A throw to Brandon Wright netted 20 yards but burned most of the remaining seconds before the in-bounds tackle at the Maine 46. A rushed spike left a single tick for Conner to hurl an unanswered prayer a stride beyond wideouts Will Prosser and Tee Milons.
Everybody in Maroon struggled to explain how this one could have gotten away, while crediting Maine for a winning effort. "They made plays and did what they had to do to win," said Conner. Yet the Bears were clearly vulnerable, particularly in the second quarter when lucky rolls on Jared Cook punts pinned Maine deep repeatedly. "We started to move the ball and shut them down defensively," Croom said. "I thought we were in pretty good shape. But when you don't put points on the board in the red zone it's a dangerous thing."
The Dog defense did keep things under control most of the way, holding Maine to 64 total yards at halftime and containing tailback Marcus Williams (17 carries for 58 yards). Whitcomb was just 10-of-19 for 124 yards. So the Bears' big guns did not set any sort of tone.
But Maine's defense made up for this. Most glaringly, the blitz went through Bulldog blocking almost at will, sacking Conner twice and hitting him repeatedly. The quarterback suffered a sprain to the left shoulder. "They blitzed every play, almost. They did a good job disguising it and containing me."
And the ‘Black Hole' defense also shadowed State running backs. Starter Jerious Norwood had 44 yards by halftime but missed the second half with a bruised knee. Reid managed 72 yards on 18 carries, and was one block away from a 80-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter. Like most MSU block attempts, this one missed also. Conner had to throw 34 times, completing 21 for 250 yards.
None of which mattered compared to a final score that raised eyebrows everywhere. "We moved the ball well, we just didn't score when we got down there," said Croom. "In the red zone we didn't show up."
Which left a whole lot of folk at Scott Field showing red faces. "They (Maine) fought hard and kept in the game," McDougal said. "When you let teams stay in the game like that they'll sneak up and win. And that's what they did."