'We could have scored again,' it signaled; 'we choose not to bother.' It would only have delayed the postgame partying. And besides, best I could tell this was one of the cleanest, best-behaved Battles for the Golden Egg ever. Not perfect on all sides, of course, but reasonably respectful on the field and in the seats. You may judge for yourself if the combined records were responsible.
The thing is, though, both teams played for a full half as if more than just one of college sport's more unique trophies was at stake. I confess, like most I anticipated a defensive day at Scott Field with points harder to come by than a good parking pass. So what do the respective, and greatly dis-respected, offenses do? Come out gunning (Ole Miss) and running (State) and pushing the pigskin all around the pasture. That 28-point second quarter alone was worth showing up for, though doubtless it has the faithful on both sides wondering where such proficiency had been all the long season.
It was that same period that told me the Bulldogs were going to win this one. Specifically, after the go-ahead drive in the five minutes before intermission. A change of quarterbacks had put some variety in the Rebel attack and evened the score 14-14. And based on the previous 21 games we might've expected State to play it safe, take the tie to the locker room, and hope to wear the other guys down in the last half. Instead the Dogs went 80 yards in 11 plays, the first a 17-yard pass that showed the offensive staff was going for the kill right then.
Yet the tell-tale point wasn't when the Dog of the day, Jerious Norwood, took an unplanned but unstoppable leap of the goal line for a touchdown lead. It was when the other team settled for a simple handoff and left the field with two unused time outs. Barring turnover-disaster or injury (yep, my heart skipped a few dozen beats when Norwood left to get treated for what proved mere cramps), Coach Sylvester Croom was going to get his most-needed win of his first two seasons at State.
And those aforementioned long-suffering seniors were going to leave Scott Field with heads and Egg both held high. "It's been a long time coming, man," said linebacker Clarence McDougal, whose own career has seen more injuries and operations than successes. Now he could really, truly smile about himself and his program. "I'm just happy we got the win and could send Coach Croom out on a good note. A lot of seniors just wanted to do something special."
Or as Norwood put it, "The time had come now."
I wish I could've recorded Croom's end-of-practice talks with the team during Egg Bowl week. Not so much for the words, which were normal enough; but the absolutely way he said them. The coach got right into the heart and gut of every player circled around…and if he didn't, those Dogs dared not let it show. Essentially, Croom told his second team they had what it took to win if they put it all to work first in preparation, then in play. I don't believe he ever even allowed the word ‘lose' to be uttered, because he was convinced these Bulldogs could and should win this rivalry game.
It was consistent with the comments made weeks earlier at the now-famous Huntsville Quarterback Club meeting where, among other things, Croom said if State played to capabilities they would whip Ole Miss. Croom affirmed those words at Tuesday's press conference, then again after the victory was on the board and in the books.
"I said it. I meant it." That was his entire response, and said without a trace of gloating. Just the facts, man, which is the same way Croom approaches everything to do with getting this football program off the ground. What he says, he means, and these Bulldogs have learned there are no idle words wasted by this coach. Along that same line of thought, State's preparations were just as no-nonsense and reinforced Croom's talk. "Ole Miss might've got to go home for Thanksgiving," said Norwood. "But he had us up here hitting every day!"
Hitting, and planning for this game like none other. By now you've read reports, from here and other outlets, how State figured there was little sense trying to outrun a darn good Rebel defense around the ends. So they attacked between the tackles, right into the perceived Ole Miss strength and right at all-world linebacker Patrick Willis who was magnificent in defeat.
I can't help now noting all the message-board anguish this fall about Bulldog bull-headedness in always, to fan minds, ‘running it up the middle.' In fact, just before Norwood's first touchdown jaunt, I commented to a writer friend that if State ran a delay or counter on first down the fans would likely boo. A 33-yard scoring scamper later all I heard was cheers for the ‘conservative' call. "They had a great defense," Norwood explained later, "real fast. In order to gain ground you had to go straight at them. The gameplan was pretty much to attack them, smash-mouth football." This time smash-mouth was a smashing success.
The handful of us allowed to observe practices saw this coming, and the poor walk-on (#65 in blue, I think it was) who modeled Willis should get at least a partial scholarship for the abuse taken all week. Not just from blocking but from Norwood constantly running over him…but didn't it pay off on that classic touchdown carry? As did all else the Bulldogs planned for and, at last, executed. They couldn't have picked a better game to do it in either.
"We didn't put in any new plays, we ran the same stuff we've been running all year," said Croom. "Against one of the better defenses around. Everybody said we weren't going to move the ball, we didn't change anything. It was the same plays we've been running all year. We completed the pass and ran the football against one of the better defenses in our conference." 409 yards, 23 first downs, 8-of-15 efficiency on third downs…I think we can agree State's staff game-planned properly.
Let's not overlook the Dog defense's equal contributions. It would have been easy to overlook an injury-riddled Rebel backfield and just plan for the pass. Not so, State wanted to leave Ole Miss no choice but go to the air, even after getting burned for an opening touchdown. Instead of panicking the Bulldogs kept pounding Rebel runners, greatly aided of course by some long-awaited offensive support. This was not a UM team likely to come from behind, to say the least, especially not once Evans & Co. could tee off on whoever was taking the snap. Four interceptions and four sacks are the proof.
"The gameplan we put in for the week was successful and we got some big plays off it," said Evans. "We knew the game was on our backs so we played good ball."
Good enough to force the visitors to leave that Egg behind after a three-year exile in Oxford. "The seniors hadn't even known what the Egg looked like until now," said frosh Mike Henig, who safe to say staked a strong claim to the quarterback job for the future. A future that suddenly is a bit brighter for all involved. "It's going to be better because we won our last game, which is the most important game," junior Johnson agreed. "We can build from this game and get better."
"This win is the beginning of something real good," said Norwood. "Like I told one of the recruits, we haven't been winning but things are about to change. I know Coach Croom is going to stay on the guys and get them to where they need to be."
Interestingly, Croom was already thinking ahead even as he shed that celebration-soaked jacket to meet the media. Yes, getting to display the Egg to the home crowd before handing it off to his players was the culmination of a week's preparation and a welcome reward for a full season's struggles. Yet it is only a step in a bigger, longer process. "A lot of thoughts run through your mind," Croom said. "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.
"You feel good. There were a lot of frustrations but as I've said before, we have a plan, we know what we're doing, we know where we're going. We will not change the plan. This is a huge step forward and we've got to finish it. The next ‘ball game' is that first Wednesday in February, if we win that game we'll win a lot more of these."
At the same time, Croom's first Egg Bowl victory will always be a bit more special because it rewarded all those LSS's for their, well, their long sufferings. The coach wants the departing Dogs to remember, and to be remembered. "I told our seniors this was not the end of their career, this was the beginning of our championship run today. It will mean confidence to the players returning and it will mean a great deal of confidence to the players we're recruiting. Jerious said in the prayer that this was the beginning of our great future. This was not the end, this was the beginning." True, it's bold to talk of championships after a one-win conference season. But as noted Croom rarely spouts and never spins. He also said something that again points to just what this end-of-season victory could yet mean. "Our players have worked hard and never quit, but it comes to a point you want to see some kind of reward for all the work you do." Now the younger Dogs have some reward; surely it will whet appetites for more.
As to the oldsters who have just hung up the uniform for the last time? They have their own reward. Yet even they have a sense of unselfishness in the midst of celebration. "Going in I was thinking about what Coach was telling me, all he's done for me," said Norwood. "I couldn't do nothing but finish strong and do the best I can."
These seniors did finish strong and on the best day of their college lives. The Egg stays in Starkville; these guys take the memories with them.
"I feel good about my career," said McDougal. "We haven't won the games we should have won but I'm happy to come out on top. And this will be a stepping stone for Mississippi State and I'm just happy to be a part of it. I'm telling you, next year people had better watch out for the Bulldogs."
We'll leave the last word on 2005 to Norwood. "I'm just glad to be a part of the Mississippi State Bulldog family. I've got many memories here. And I will come back."
RANDOM RAMBLINGS -- Sorry to say, my modest proposal of last week was ignored. Not that I'm so surprised. Letting Jerious Norwood take the Golden Egg home with him as a permanent memento of his final and most rewarding college game—or as I told fellow scribes, as his own Lifetime Achievement Award--might've set a shaky precedent, not to mention necessitated finding another trophy for next year's rematch.
Then again Jerious didn't mind leaving the Egg with his coach and returning teammates to defend in 2006. Just getting to tote the trophy across Scott Field, after a well-publicized kiss on it's gilded skin, was reward enough after four mostly frustrating Mississippi State seasons. Besides, Norwood was able to leave the post-game interview room with even more priceless cargo. Two-year-old Ja'nyla seemed to enjoy riding on his strong shoulders, though all the folk stopping J-Rock to request autographs, handshakes, poses for photos did fascinate her greatly. And if it was a NCAA violation for this writer to briefly carry Norwood's gear- and clothes-bags so he could give Ja'nyla a ride, well, they know where to find me.
Of course all us who know Norwood aren't surprised he was already thinking of another sort of trophy to win, since deer season is underway. Asked if he was headed for the woods Sunday morning, "I don't know about tomorrow. Probably Monday, it all depends on how I feel!"
*The Palmeiro Center is already paying off, as Mississippi State practiced indoors each day last week. Not all day, as kicking and warm-up work was on the outdoor fields. Then as the sun went down around five-ish the Dogs moved indoors for team and situation drills. Now, y'all will recall that the game-week weather was pretty darn good for November and, until sunset at least, quite a few players didn't even wear sweats. Still State would take it inside for the second half of each day's drills, which might've seemed to be coddling the kids before the game of the year.
During the week I asked around, why so?, and without giving away too much of the reasoning…well, let's just say the coaching staff is convinced that the Rebels were a bit TOO perfectly prepared for the 2004 Egg Bowl on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense. The new IPF has only a couple of doors and no windows for prying eyes, if you get the drift.