*The last time this game was not televised was in 1995, when the Rebels won in Starkville.
How much difference does a year and a player make in college ball? Compare Mississippi teams of 2003 and 2004 and judge for yourself. Coach David Cutcliffe knew '04 would be a transition season after saying farewell to the best quarterback in program history, but few observers imagined this squad would post the first losing season in Oxford since 1996. Since an opening-day loss to Memphis the Rebels have struggled first for an identity, then for consistency, and found neither, to the point even the coach can't predict which team will show up on Saturday. Off-field player incidents haven't helped the overall program mood, either, and a spoiled fan base is near Rebel-lion. Yet an objective look has to recognize there is still plenty of talent and winning experience to work with, and despite losing four-straight the Rebs have played a couple league leaders right to the wire. And with nothing left to lose the team seems to have played with more recklessness lately, or at least sometimes. The downfall has been inability to make that one extra, decisive play, and then string together consecutive strong efforts. Does one great player make that much difference? This year in Oxford, it has.
The nickname of this unit ought to be the Enigmas. Veteran blocking, big-play receivers, an interesting mix of runners and throwers…so how can UM rank just 104th nationally in scoring and 83rd in yardage? Cutcliffe would love to know, too. Still, if the Reb offense isn't consistent it does retain some of 2003's explosive potential and can burn an unwary defense at any point. Nobody could reasonably ask one quarterback to replace a #1 NFL draft pick, so UM has tried three triggermen—often in the same game—and has settled on alternating two by series, even by play. Soph Ethan Flatt should draw this start, his eighth; he's a tall pocket-passer with an even 1,500 yards so far and a 57% completion rate. But his TD/INT ratio of 6/9 is not up to UM standards. Thus redshirt freshman Robert Lane gets his turns. He is the runner of the two with a 4.8-yard average and two scores, though he has just 134 passing yards in five games and 38% completions. The wild card is still option runner Micheal Spurlock, starter of the first two games, who might well be useful in this game. There's no lack of quality targets to choose from in the throwing game. SE Bill Flowers (29 catches, 349 yards) has made big catches for years, though his health is a question this week, and junior Mario Hill actually tops the team in stats (34, 401). FL Mike Espy spreads coverages for catch-and-runs, and Kerry Johnson (27, 338) is the third receiver in multiple sets. Oh yes, and FB Lorenzo Townsend has two of UM's six receiving scores. Play-calling this year has leaned more on the ground game, and while a 147-yard team average still ranks 11th in the SEC rushing has markedly improved the last three weeks. Vashon Pearson (726 yards, 3 TDs) has been a steady producer lately and freshman Alan Abrams should be healthy this week, while 235-pound Brandon Jacobs gets the hard yards with five of the total 12 rushing touchdowns. The offensive line is arguably the most experienced in the league, with a dozen varsity letters among the five starters already. The strength is right in the middle, with junior C Chris Spencer, and seniors Doug Buckles and Marcus Johnson at left and right guards. The line averages 312 pounds across. So, what's the problem on offense? Turnovers, penalties, and time of possession all tilt against the Rebels, who also rank last in the SEC in third-down conversions. Hmm, once again it points to the one, great big, missing piece from 2003.
This should have been the year the Rebel defense came into its own, with plenty of veterans and improved size and speed…not to mention pressure to succeed. Things haven't quite worked out as planned, and while lack of scoring support has been an obvious handicap this unit has to accept a large portion of the blame. Only Kentucky allows more rushing yards and touchdowns a game in the league, which is primarily why Mississippi is giving up 27.5 points and on the wrong side of possession-time. If there's a saving grace here, it is UM's knack for making creative and even momentum-turning plays, usually off a turnover as Tennessee and LSU can attest. So don't take the defense for granted. The set is a variation of a 4-3 using a pair of designated linebackers and a weak-side safety who is essentially the third LB. That would be team tackle leader Charles Clark, a 195-pound soph with 73 stops. SLB Rob Robertson is close behind with 71 tackles, five for losses. UM likes to swap in and out a pair of 245-pound middle LBs, with good reason as starter Brian Lester and alternate Patrick Willis have each had double-digit stops the last two games. Willis also has ten tackles for loss and four sacks, best on the club. The offset four-front has been steady if not spectacular, though junior DT McKinley Boykin has twice won SEC defensive POTW and has nine stops behind the line. NT Michael Bozeman is more active than most nose men, with seven of his tackles for losses. MSU knows DE Corvelli Haynes, a 2002 MSU signee who had to go juco and chose UM the second time. The cornerbacks are strong points, as Trumaine McBride and Travis Johnson rank first and second in the league in passes-defended. FS Eric Oliver ranks first among active SEC players in career tackles with 315, though he's had some injury issues. Johnson and SS Kelvin Robinson have been hobbled lately as well. Examine the roster, and the stats, and this looks like a pretty good unit that hasn't quite played to potential, giving up more yards than most SEC clubs on first and third downs and really struggling against the rush. But it's also a group that can also make things happen and keep games competitive.
These are top-notch specialists having good senior seasons. Cody Ridgeway is third in the SEC, 28th nationally, with a 42.5 punt average, and Jonathan Nichols is 18-of-24 on field goals to rank 7th in the land at 1.80 treys per game. He's also perfect on PATs. Espy hasn't broken a really big return yet, on either punts or kickoffs, but he can at any time. Coverage has been steady all year.
This rivalry is tied for 16th-longest among ongoing NCAA series, having begun in 1901, and is second in the SEC only to Auburn-Georgia. State won that first meeting and owned the series from 1911-25. But the Rebels had caught up by the end of the 1940s, when the ‘dark ages' began for State. Bulldog teams won only once from 1947-69, in '64, with three ties. That's why Mississippi owns a 57-37-6 record (including forfeits of 1976-77 State wins) in the series, and they enter this game having won three of the last four and two-straight. UM leads 18-10-3 in games played in Oxford, and Cutcliffe is 3-2 against State.
The Last Time: November 27, 2003
Jackie Sherrill scored seven wins over the arch-rivals, more than any other Bulldog coach ever. But he was unable to close out his career with another, as host Mississippi State absorbed a 31-0 thrashing from the visiting Rebels on a soggy Thanksgiving Night. The 100th game in the series was not a classic confrontation by any measure; it was a contest for maybe a quarter. After two MSU punts Mississippi got their high-powered offense in gear, using four plays to score on a 25-yard pass from Eli Manning to Trumaine Turner at 3:28. The Bulldog defense was able to create a pair of fumble turnovers on the next two series, and the offense gambled on 4th-and-1 at their own 37. Kevin Fant was stopped for no gain on a sneak, and four snaps later the lead doubled as Lawrence Lilly tipped and caught a 11-yard touchdown pass at 8:40. An interception of Fant led to a 32-yard field goal and 17-0 lead, then 15 seconds before intermission Brandon Jacobs muscled across the goal line from a yard out. At 24-0 the game was over, though a whole half had to be played for ESPN in increasingly poor weather. A muffed punt late in the third quarter set up UM's final score as Manning hooked up with Chris Collins for a 23-yard touchdown at 1:39. The visitors finished with 359 yards of offense, 260 passing by Manning, while State had but 192 yards in the shutout. It was State's second-straight loss to UM, and the Bulldogs ended 2003 on a six-game losing streak. The Rebels went on to win the Cotton Bowl, a month after Sylvester Croom was given charge of rebuilding the MSU program.
Did You Know?
*Since the series returned to the respective campuses in 1991, Mississippi State holds a 7-6 lead. The Egg Bowl was played in Jackson from 1973-89.
*This game has been the regular-season finale for both teams since 1947, with three exceptions. The Rebels had games after the Egg Bowls of 1970 and '74, while in 2001 Mississippi State hosted Brigham Young in a rescheduled game.
*The team leading at halftime has won 72.5% of the time. State beat those odds in both 1999 and 2001 with a second-half rally each time.
*State is on a 14-game losing streak in SEC West play. The last win was in 2001, at home against Mississippi. State has not won any SEC road game since 2000 at Kentucky.
How They Compare:
Can one quarterback just getting comfortable with a new offense check two, even three triggermen on the other side? If Conner is on his game, sure. But by the same token, UM only has to prepare for one quarterback; can Dog defense be ready for this rotation?
Running Backs: State
Norwood just passed the 1,000 yard mark and ranks 2nd in the SEC now that he's full-strength and the line is healthy. Pearson is having a good year, too. Supporting cast is well-matched.
Offensive Line: Mississippi
But not by nearly the margin anyone would have said back in August. Bulldog blocking has begun to over-achieve lately, while Reb front hasn't met higher expectations.
The most clear-cut advantage for either team in any area. UM has multiple choices of deep-threats and catch-and-go guys. Dogs catchers are more possession-types, but oh, if only Scott and Bivines could have been healthy this year.
Defensive Line: State
OK, so this is more of a hunch than statistical judgement. Still State D-front has developed nicely and is stronger on the run. UM linemen can hit, also can miss.
Another surprise, because on paper Rebel ‘backers have the numbers. Of course they have to make more plays, too. State LBs have improved markedly since lineup change, and potential is there.
UM looks more consistent on the corners, though the safeties spend too much time tackling runners. Bulldog DBs will need to be on their best game to shut down the deep game and keep the focus on the trenches.
Again, closer than expected. Some think UM's kickers have under-achieved this year. Maybe, but they're still darn good. State is actually punting better now, though, and coverage/returns are pretty well-matched. If Andrews is on, this is a pick'em call.
Why? Well, folk in Oxford are in a lousy mood these days with the ending of a laudable run of winning years and bowl bids and mutterings of major staff changes in store. The State camp, by contrast, is newly optimistic and starting to see some of the results promised by the new man in charge. There's just a sense that two programs headed in different directions meet this weekend, though whether '04 is the actual ‘juncture' of opposing track-lines is the question to answer. If healthy the Rebels are still better judged by talent and experience. State, however, is already looking to a brighter future, and success here would hasten dawn for the Dawgs…and finally reward a bunch of long-suffering seniors who have paid a career's worth of dues.
It's the Egg Bowl. Need we say more?