Norwood, Bulldogs Run Over Rebels

Considering all the effort, energy, and emotion he'd just expended; all the tough yards gained, all the hard hits taken; even the time spent plugged into a drip to stop third-quarter cramping; given all that it might seem the last thing Jerious Norwood would want was to carry another football around Scott Field. But then, this wasn't just any old football.

It was the Golden Egg. And having run all over the Rebels en route to a 35-14 victory, Norwood was ready to get his senior hands on the ancient trophy. "Long as I've been playing football at Mississippi State we'd never beat Ole Miss," he said. "But the time had come now. Once I had the chance to get the Egg I just wanted to have a little fun with it! I really didn't want to let it go."

Had Norwood immediately carried the Egg to the nearest end zone it would have been entirely understandable. In his final game of his Bulldog career Norwood rushed for three touchdowns and caught a short pass from quarterback Mike Henig for another, allowing himself and 15 other State seniors to leave Scott Field as winners. The Bulldog team ended the season 3-8 and 1-7 in SEC play, while the Rebels finished with an identical record but also with a loss in the game that matters most to each program.

"I told the guys just go out, play hard, and leave it all on the field," said Norwood, who led the final team pre-game prayer. "Thanks to the Good Lord we came out on top."

Coach Sylvester Croom pointed to a more earthy reason for the victory, in the guy pounding the ground. "He's our horse," said the coach. "He was the reason we won the football game."

Norwood piled up 204 rushing yards on a career-most 34 carries, with a longest haul of 33 yards. That came early in the second quarter and put State's first touchdown on the board. His other scores were on a two-yard dive and a one-yard vault, also in the second quarter and each time giving the Bulldogs a lead. His scoring catch, on a five-yard rollout play, came with 5:13 left in the fourth period and sealed the outcome with State's final points of the season.

It was the most touchdowns Norwood had scored as a collegian, and let him finish an often-frustrating career on the highest of notes. "It's Ole Miss- Mississippi State, it couldn't get no better," he grinned.

Certainly the Bulldog offense saved their best for the last game of the season. In seven SEC losses State had scored only 43 points, and never more than one touchdown. And few would have forecast such fireworks against a Rebel defense that ranked with the league's best. So all the Dogs did was put up five offensive scores, two of them set up by interceptions, and pile up 409 yards with a 5.4 yard average per snap.

As the numbers showed there was more to the attack than Norwood. Henig was 11-of-20 passing for 105 yards and his first two college touchdown passes. He did not take a sack, and his lone turnover came on a tipped ball. Quarterback-turned-receiver Omarr Conner had four of those catches for 69 yards, and fullback Bryson Davis slipped open for a six-yard touchdown pass midway of the fourth quarter that gave State a two-score margin.

And when Norwood had to go to the sideline, or in that third-quarter case the locker room, freshman Brandon Thornton filled in quite well with 80 yards on 13 carries. His 6.2 average gain was even higher than Norwood's 6.0 rate of progess. "We just gave the ball to our playmakers," said Henig.

"It's the best game we've played in two years," said Croom. "It's the best and most complete game we've played."

That included the not-to-be-overlooked work of a State defense that, despite allowing a couple of first-half touchdowns, was clearly on its own best game. "We said if the offense could give us 21 points we'd win the game," defensive end Willie Evans said. The forecast was right on the money. Because after scoring their second and tying touchdown at 5:06 of the second quarter, the Rebel offense was utterly in-offensive. In fact, Ole Miss touched the ball only four times the entire second half and got no further than their own 46-yard line.

By the final horn UM had managed a mere 189 yards, taken just 49 snaps, and held the ball only 25:13. The scoreboard didn't show a shutout, but the Dog defense felt as if they'd thrown one at the visitors.

"The d-line played good and the linebackers and secondary did what they were supposed to do," said linebacker Clarence McDougal, who finished tied with Evans for the team tackle-lead at seven apiece. Both had two tackles for major losses and Evans ended his MSU career fitting with a pair of sacks. Linebacker Quinton Culberson had six stops credited and four more Dogs had four each, pointing to just how balanced the effort was.

The Rebels, already the league's poorest ground-gainers, had a miserable afternoon on the Scott Field turf with just 31 net rushing yards. This was State's first victory, in fact. "The biggest thing was to stop the running game," said Evans. "We were able to play hard-nosed defense, then put pressure on the quarterback and force him to throw some bad balls."

He should have said ‘quarterbacks' because two Rebel triggermen took their turns—and as it turned out, their lumps. Starter Ethan Flatt was 6-of-10 throwing for 72 yards, and stung State with a 41-yard strike to Taye Biddle for a touchdown just 91 seconds after kickoff. But after two interceptions dropback passer Flatt was replaced by Micheal Spurlock, a more versatile runner/thrower.

"That threw us off a little," admitted Evans. Senior Spurlock was able to lead a nine-play scoring drive of 85 yards and hit fullback Robert Lane—a converted quarterback himself—for a seven-yard touchdown pass that evened the scoreboard at 14-14. But that was the last chance the Rebels had to yell, unless it was in pain and increasing frustration as State's defense took charge the rest of the way and entirely stifled the ground game.

"It made them one-dimensional," Croom said. "We shut the run down and they had to throw the football. We got good pressure up front. And we caught the ball." As in four interceptions with a pair of picks off Spurlock. Three of those four takeaways were caught by safety Jeramie Johnson who had a career-best outing. But he was just one of many, Johnson said.

"The intensity got hyped because of who we were playing. So that's the game we've been waiting for. It built our confidence as a defense, and it built up the offense too."

The Bulldogs demonstrated some confidence early on, by not letting the instant Rebel touchdown shake them up much if at all. It came on a faked end-around with Flatt firing long for Biddle, who made the catch at the five behind safety Demario Bobo and scored at 13:29. "We knew we made a mistake," said Evans. "The safety came up and bit on the run a little bit. But we knew we had to show poise."

They did, on both sides of the ball. When State's first drive, including a 25-yard dash from Norwood, stalled at the Rebel 35 Blake McAdams dropped his punt where Keith Fitzhugh could down it on the one-yard line. On 3rd-and-1 Evans blitzed and sacked Flatt at the original line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs then wasted an opportunity as, after Henig hit Conner for a 25-yard gain to the UM 11, Adam Carlson's 32-yard line drive was wide to the left.

Two minutes later State had the ball but on 3rd-and-19 Henig was hit, his throw tipped and intercepted by all-star linebacker Patrick Willis at the Rebel 47. But two plays later Flatt rushed a throw, left it low, and Evans found the ball right in his hands. "I was reaching to knock it down, and I caught it. It was fun."

The offense did nothing with this break either, posting a scoreless first quarter that had the home portion of the crowd—announced at 53,655—buzzing with familiar anxiety. But early in the second quarter MSU's much-maligned special teams finally made a play as Jonathan Hill came through to partially block a Rob Park punt that rolled dead at the Rebel 34-yard line. As the offense huddled Norwood made a pronouncement. "J-Rock said we're going to score right here," reported Henig.

The call was '96-power' and Norwood danced through left guard, shed Willis without losing momentum and sliced back to his right. "I kind of had the jump on him, I gave him a stiff-arm and after that I was off to the races." He hit the goal line at 13:47 with Carlson's PAT tying things up.

"One play, touchdown," said Henig.

Shortly it was a second Rebel turnover and another Bulldog touchdown. After a 12-yard sack by defensive end Michael Heard Flatt was nearly picked by cornerback Kevin Docker.y; then he was intercepted by Johnson a yard across midfield. "Basically I was trying to break to the ball but I saw it go high and went for it." And got it with momentum that carried Johnson to the 11-yard line. Norwood ran for seven yards, Henig kept for two more, and on third down Norwood collided with the quarterback on the handoff.

But he kept his balance and turned towards the middle of the line. "I just saw a hole and dove for it." The touchdown at 9:37 put State in front for the first time, 14-7. It, along with those two picks, also produced the change of quarterbacks and Spurlock did his job well at first. With big-back Jamal Pittman rumbling for 30 yards the quarterback mixed sharp throws with timely keepers on the extended drive, then threaded the needle to Lane for the tying touchdown.

There were over five minutes left to intermission, and instead of settling for a deadlock Croom turned the Dogs loose. Henig threw to Conner for 14 yards, Norwood ran for 11, then Conner came down with an 11-yard grab at the UM 42. A short catch on his knees by Lance Long at the 25 made Croom call time at 1:57. But it took no sideline inspiration to plan the ensuing plays.

Because it was all Norwood, all the time. He ran over one tackler for a first down at the 14, then crashed to the five-yard line and in the process went over 100 yards. A dive to the two was followed by a vault of center that put State back in front 21-14 at intermission. "It wasn't called to jump, I was just trying to get in the end zone any way I could." It was his third running score of the half.

That series also confirmed how State wanted to attack the Rebel defense, not by getting Norwood on the corners but keeping plays between the tackles. This gameplan, so criticized by fans all season, was the right recipe under these circumstances. "This week we went back to some core plays," said Croom. "We'd been tossing Jerious the ball but defenses were too fast. We ran the same blocking scheme but we handed it off to him instead, I think that ‘defined' the hole to him."

Ole Miss was content to go into their locker room down a touchdown, and when State went three-and-out the Rebels naturally looked to start a tying drive. It lasted three plays with Spurlock stopped short on 3rd-and-9. In retrospect Ole Miss probably would have tried for the fourth down, even on their 46. Because the Bulldogs were able to burn 6:36 off the third-quarter clock on 12 snaps before punting, with Fitzhugh making an incredible catch of McAdams' line-drive punt with one foot on the half-yard line and the other…well, it looked to be in the end zone, but the downed-ruling held up under review.

That extended series, though scoreless, was also crucial because Norwood had to go inside at 8:44 with cramps. "Once I knew it was cramps I wasn't worried," Croom said. "I knew cramps weren't going to keep him from playing."

Spurlock did dig his team out of the hole with a third-down throw to Mike Espy for 15 yards, then to Jimmy Brooks for 17 more. Evans then ripped through for a 14-yard sack back to the UM 32, and while Spurlock was on-target on 3rd-and-26 for Carlos Suggs the throw was broken up by Dockery at the Bulldog 40-yard line. The Dog defense had held up the margin in a scoreless third quarter.

And on the last play of the period Norwood returned to rousing applause that turned to thunder as he bolted for 15 yards on his first play. "I didn't think I'd come back that strong!" he said. But he did indeed, showing no ill effects and converting on consecutive third downs to keep ball and clock moving. With the Rebels now naturally obsessed with Norwood, a handoff to Davis got nine yards and on first down at the 22 Thornton raced for the corner and dove for the pylon. The touchdown signal was overruled on review, and after two Norwood dives got nothing Henig rolled out to his right and found Davis wide-open for his first touchdown pass, at 8:43.

Down 28-14 the Rebels had to throw farther and faster, but on second down Spurlock was again picked off by Johnson at the Ole Miss 44. Eight plays later the Bulldogs tacked on the insurance points with Henig again rolling right but this time tossing for Norwood. The halfback would get to touch the ball one last time, right after Johnson's third interception as Spurlock was picked at the Rebel 38.

Norwood bolted for a 17-yard gain, then left the field the last time after gaining 1,136 yards this season and 3,222 for his career, the 17th-best total in SEC history. State was able to run the rest of the clock out and substitute much of the offense, with senior Brett Morgan handling the last five snaps of 2005. The last were a couple of kneel-downs, which was something these Bulldogs had waited a long, long time to do. "I knew we had the trophy then," said Norwood.

Croom even got to carry the trophy for a few moments, before giving it to his well-rewarded players. His own walk to the locker room, then to the postgame interview, had the coach pondering not just how his team ended their year but what this could mean for the program. "A lot of thoughts run through your mind," said Croom.

"But the main thought is I've got to get up at 6:00 in the morning and get on the recruiting trail so we can have a lot more days like this."

There will be no more days like this one for State's seniors, at least not on a college field. But if they were never able to post a winning record in their Bulldog days, these upperclassmen got to leave the home field as winners. "Coach said play with passion and pride," said Conner. Such a challenge was worth giving one last, complete effort.

"And again, it's Ole Miss," said Norwood. "Why not?!"

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