Bulldog Egg Hopes Cracked In Oxford

There was no need to see a stat sheet. Nor for recounting mistakes by and missed chances. The 2004 Battle for the Golden Egg was won, and lost, for the most fundamental of football reasons.

"Mainly we just got whipped up front, one-on-one," Mississippi State Coach Sylvester Croom said.

And that was indeed the story of the 101st Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs and Rebels lined up on Vaught-Hemingway Field, and the home team hit harder, longer, and better to earn a 20-3 victory. A crowd of 55,810 watched Mississippi finish up the year 4-7, 3-5 SEC, and claim a third-straight win in the series. State ended Croom's first year 3-8, 2-6 SEC.

As frustrated as the coach was by the outcome in his Egg Bowl debut, Croom was most disappointed that his team just got overpowered by a Rebel team which didn't appear to have any physical or emotional edges in this matchup. Yet disparities on the stat sheet—a 24-to-6 lead in first downs, 421 yards to 220, and a possession-time difference of 15 minutes, a full quarter's worth—were nearly as glaring as the final score.

Worst of all, every one of those margins was built one snap at a time. The Rebels won this one the old-fashioned way. "Bottom line, in one-on-ones when we had the opportunity to make plays, they made them and we didn't," Croom said.

"It was a matter of who wanted it most," defensive end Willie Evans said. "The way things looked, they wanted it a little bit more than we did."

Running back Fred Reid put it less grammatically but maybe more succinctly. "They wanted it badder than us. That's why they won."

If there was a decisive stretch in this game, it was the scoreless third quarter. Bringing a 10-3 lead out of the locker room, Mississippi survived two turnovers and kept the Bulldogs from erasing or eating into the touchdown cushion. Then, taking over on their own two-yard line, the Rebels put the game away with a 98-yard drive that ended on the first play of the fourth period with the clinching touchdown.

"They went out and made plays, and we didn't," Evans said.

Given the respective records, and lack of incoming momentum, a win—or loss—by either participant was not likely to startle anyone. What probably surprised both sidelines most, though, was how the Rebels dominated the day defensively. The Mississippi defense came in ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing and touchdowns allowed, which was expected to play right into MSU's offensive strength.

It didn't happen, to say the least. The Bulldog ground game managed a grand-net-total of 70 rushing yards, and 46 of that came on a single second-quarter Reid scamper to set up the field goal that provided all State scoring for the day. Jerious Norwood, the #2-ranked rusher in the league, finished with 24 yards on 11 carries.

In short, the Dogs were shut down and almost out on the ground where they had thrived the second half of this season. "I'm very surprised," Croom said. "That's one thing I thought we could do, run the football and do a good job in play-action. And they just beat us up front. They didn't do anything different, it was the same fronts we prepared for. They just whipped us up front."

The Rebels used a comparable scheme to Arkansas, placing seven and eight defenders at the line of scrimmage and daring the Dogs to make a hole. State couldn't, and the few cracks carved out were quickly stuffed. "They had a nose for the ball today, the line and linebackers," quarterback Omarr Conner said.

The whole house could smell State's passing game, which was even less effective. Conner was harried by blitzing linebackers and safeties coming from all directions, going down on four official sacks and taking many more hits. Three times he had to be helped to the bench on a gimpy right leg. Only eight of his 20 throws were caught—there at least three obvious drops—for 150 yards. Of that, 72 came in the fourth quarter on a single catch-and-run by backup tight end Ty Freeman, who still managed to get stripped for a fumble and turnover in sight of the goal line.

So in all, 108 of the total 220 Bulldog yards were on two plays, neither of which scored against an inspired Rebel defense. "They definitely played hard enough to win," said Croom, "and they deserved to win."

A Dog-tired defense deserved somewhat better for their own efforts, expended over 37:28 of clock time and a ridiculous 88 snaps. The unit was not without fault, as tackling was often reminiscent of September and assignments were missed. Still the MSU defense was asked to do too much for too long.

The Rebels had used a two- and three-quarterback rotation this season, but for the Egg Bowl one stood out. Redshirt freshman Robert Lane hit 10-of-17 passes for 108 yards and the first UM touchdown. He also had two throws intercepted. The real damage was done afoot, as Lane ran for 97 yards and another score on 19 carries. He was never sacked, and only once brought down for a loss.

"He ran better than we tackled," Croom said. "He's not elusive, he's just a big guy that runs hard." But Lane's hard running was complemented by faster footwork from tailback Vashon Pearson, with 81 yards on 20 carries. In all the Rebels gained 283 ground yards, a remarkable reversal of team roles. And it all began with superior blocking by the veteran UM interior line.

"They had big gaps coming off," cornerback David Heard said, "the line was creating some big holes and filling the linebackers pretty good, and the secondary had to come up and make plays." Which of course was too late.

The first Rebel play was actually a pass, and a turnover, when starter Ethan Flatt tried to burn State deep down the middle. Target Mike Espy was double-covered and safety Darren Williams had inside position for the first of his two interceptions, this one at State's 40-yard line.

But the Bulldogs failed to make use of the takeaway, and for the second turn the Rebels put Lane under center and stayed on the ground to move the chains six times until reaching the six-yard line. A second-down keeper nearly became another turnover as the ball was jarred loose, but Lane fell on it. On third-and-goal at the four, tight end Lawrence Lilly held on to Lane's hard throw long enough to break the plane for the touchdown at 6:14.

Mississippi ended the first period moving again, with the ball at State's 26-yard line. A called keeper was stuffed so Jonathan Nichols was sent in for the three-point try. His 44-yarder hooked wide to the right.

Meanwhile the Bulldog offense was accomplishing absolutely nothing, with four yards and no first downs in three turns with the ball. UM had the line of scrimmage both stacked and spread wide, leaving no room for Norwood to work. His first five rushes netted only one yard.

After another MSU punt, with 15 free yards awarded when Chris Swain interfered with a fair catch, let the Rebels start at their 45-yard line. The drive got as far as the Bulldog 21 before Nichols tried again. This time he made good, on a 39-yarder at 8:19 for the 10-0 lead.

A second pick by Williams, when Lane threw behind Espy, put the Dogs on their 44-yard line late in the second quarter. Reid had replaced Norwood on second down, and he took a counter-right through tackle for 46 yards down to the nine-yard line. On 2nd-and-goal Conner was caught with McKinley Scott open in the end zone, and on third down he found Scott at the back of the end zone. But he was ruled out of bounds on the catch, with safety Eric Oliver making sure by driving the receiver out before he touched down.

Keith Andrews chipped the field goal kick through at 1:58, cutting the halftime deficit to a touchdown.

The third quarter may well have been the most frustrating 15 minutes of Mississippi State's season, as the Bulldogs failed to convert either of two more home-team gifts. Jamall Pittman had a eight-yard gain going when Williams stripped him and Heard scooped the bouncing ball for a 14-yard return to the Rebel 28. Two Conner throws landed untouched; the third was caught by Tee Milons , knocked free, and recovered for a net two-yard loss. At 12:38 Andrews' 48-yard field goal attempt was two yards short of the crossbar.

The next wasted opportunity came after Lane's forced throw went off Espy and into Clarence McDougal's hands. His 13-yard return put the MSU offense back on the field at their 40-yard line. Consecutive completions to Milons and Prosser netted 21 yards, and on 2nd-and-10 at the 34 Norwood cut in, then out for a 25 yards. But a downfield holding call on Scott (the alert official charged it to #2, linebacker Quinton Culberson) put the ball back at the 27.

"They called it on me," Scott said, "and to be honest I don't understand because I pushed the guy down." Conner was sacked for loss of ten yards, and the drive ended in a punt downed at the Rebel two-yard line, where the longest, most impressive, and decisive drive of the day began. Two rushes got UM out of the hole, then on 3rd-and-seven Lane ran for nine.

After crossing midfield, Lane bootlegged around the right end for 19 more yards, to the Bulldog 30-yard line. UM converted on 3rd-and-one at the 21 with Pearson squirting for five yards. The fourth period found the Rebels on State's two-yard line with third down.

Lane faked the inside handoff and rambled around the left end untouched for the 17-3 lead. "That took a lot out of us," Evans said. "They made some big plays on that drive."

Any lingering State hopes ended as a high pass was in Milons' hands, only to be taken away by Travis Johnson at midfield. Six snaps later Nichols booted a 22-yard field goal at 11:00, sending most of the remaining MSU partisans on their wet way. Much of the home crowd left early, too, though all they missed was Freeman's catch in-stride near midfield and a great rundown by Johnson for the strip from behind at 4:18.

About the only battle the Bulldogs won was in turnover margin, 4-3, yet they did almost nothing with the takeaways. "We should have had at least twelve points," Croom said, particularly noting the third-quarter failures. "They gave us opportunities early and in the third quarter, and offensively we didn't get anything done."

And not because the home team threw any unexpected twists at State, Croom emphasized. "Schemes, alignments, assignments didn't cause problems. They lined up and whipped us."

How that could be so was a gameday mystery, particularly for this special game-day. Croom said there was nothing out of the ordinary in pregame, and his team did not come out flat. But when the ball was snapped, the Rebels consistently dominated the action…most of all on the defensive.

"We didn't have the passing game or the running game," said Conner. "They just played good defense. Today I didn't make plays for my team when I was supposed to." Nor did the rest of the roster, really, which made for a quiet locker room. "Everybody was packing up and getting ready to go," reported Heard. "Not a lot of words were said."

Because there wasn't much left to be said…just a lot to think about as the Bulldogs, or those returning for 2005, consider how best to tell a different sort of story next November. "I'm disappointed, especially for the seniors," center Chris McNeil said. "They (the Rebels) have bragging rights for the next 365 days. All we can do is learn from it and make this off-season positive and look forward to next season."

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