"We said we were going to bring it back to Starkville," HB Anthony Dixon said. "But they did what they had to to win. They executed on special teams and that hurt us. That hurt us bad."
Bad? The word doesn't begin to describe damage done to and through Mississippi State's problems whenever a boot—any foot, either team—met ball Saturday. And it wasn't that last-chance miss of a very long attempt to force overtime that players and coaches alike meant when referring to kicking teams failures. Whether giving up points directly or finding the field tilted against them, un-special special teams wrought the Dogs' downfall.
"Our kicking game was very poor," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "It hurt us against Arkansas and it hurt us again today."
Fatally, the coach could have added. His regular teams dominated the first half and kept things under control most of the second. The overall statistics came out strongly in State's favor. "I think defensively we played great, offensively we did pretty good," LB Quinton Culberson said. "Just some things happened and some things didn't."
Those things, did or didn't alike, were almost entirely the responsibility of kicking and covering squads. The Rebels scored 13 of their points directly off kicking plays, with field goals in each half and the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown on a 47-yard punt return by Marshay Green with 3:29 left in the afternoon. That final score itself was set up by superior Ole Miss foot-work with the ball after the Dogs had been pinned down deep by a well-aimed punt. For that matter the first Rebel touchdown and opening score of the day came after an intentional but badly-covered State high-kickoff let them open play almost at midfield.
Those were just the most obvious issues for State's kicking plays. All Dog specialists had to counter with was one successful field goal by Carlson, a 41-yarder in the second quarter…after he had missed a 31-yarder in the first. "We had every chance to get this game," said Croom. "It really came down to the kicking game, and balls we got our hands on and didn't come down with."
That reflected the coach's frustration with State's other chief failings, dropped and/or unsecured passes which would likely have overcome even the awful kicking. No one play, save perhaps a bobbled third-down toss early in the third quarter, stood out; it was more the cumulative effects of balls that got away from both the offense and defense, which let some interception chances get to the turf first. "The bottom line in a close game like this, when you've got your hands on the ball you've got to make plays," said Croom.
The Bulldogs did make plenty other plays worth 314 yards of gain and 4.6 per offensive snap, while holding UM to 200 total yards. It was also a balanced effort as State, powered by Dixon with 125 yards and a touchdown in 25 attempts, netted 152 on the ground; and got 162 more and the other touchdown passing the ball. The aerial aspect of the afternoon may have been the most impressive because it came via the arm and heart of Conner, who probably had no business playing with his still-damaged groin muscle. Somehow the senior—running things because of the season-ending injury last week to starter Mike Henig--managed to stay on the field and keep his team in the game.
"I would break down and cry right now," he said after his last college game. "But I can't. It hurts. I gave my all."
Conner gave State 16-of-31 throwing for a score, against one fourth-quarter interception that did no direct harm. He was sacked once but hit several more times and had almost no chance of avoiding contact whether working from under-center or shotgun. "I'm very proud of the way Omarr played, he kept battling all the way to the end," said Croom. At the same time Conner's presence also limited State's gameplan almost entirely to straight handoffs and drop-backs because the quarterback was not a threat on the ground.
"We couldn't move Omarr like we'd liked to have done," Croom said. "There were times we could have run some key passes and naked passes because their ends and outside people were closing on everything in the second half. Those things normally would have been there but I don't think it took long for them to figure out he wasn't going to be moving to the edges."
So either Conner threw or Dixon ran. Even the limited tactics were sufficient to keep State in contention as Dixon moved the chains and the quarterback made use of eight teammate-targets. But that was only as long as the Rebels had to guess what was coming. Once State got into first a field-position hole after halftime things took a turn for the worse. The Bulldogs managed just 37 yards in the third quarter and practically all the fourth-period gains came on the furious 73-yard drive for the final touchdown.
"Omarr not being quite 100% we were going to try to take some pressure off him," OG Brian Anderson said. "The first half we did a good job of that. The second half, give credit to Ole Miss, we could still run the ball now and then but they weren't letting us do what we did the first half." For example, Dixon pounded out 97 yards before intermission and just 28 after.
"In the second half I started seeing so many people in the box, it was hard to see through them," Dixon said. "They slanted everywhere, I just lowered my head and did what I could."
After weeks of kickoff coverage woes the Bulldogs tried bouncing the game-opener downfield. It was still returned 19 yards, to the Rebel 44. The home team came out with their early trickery in lineups and personnel and made it work for a touchdown drive. Three of the first four UM snaps produced double-digit gains until it was 3rd-and-12 at the MSU 23. Tight end Greg Hardy lined up wide and went right to the end zone, where SS Keith Fitzhugh inexplicably played a couple of steps behind him. Brent Schaeffer's throw was on-target at 11:02.
"We let them score a fade-route to a guy who doesn't really play wide receiver," Culberson said. "That one play changed the ball game." At least it gave the home team an early boost. Then when State drove 76 yards (the series began at the 10-yard line due to a hold on an un-returned kickoff) the surge ended on Carlson's missed 31-yarder. Dixon got 51 yards in the first MSU possession.
He figured prominently in the next turn, too, which began at the Rebel 39-yard line thanks to a couple of UM penalties and short punt. Dixon turned a third-down screen toss into 13 yards and move of the chains. This drive also stalled when Conner was blind-sided by all-star linebacker Patrick Willis for a sack, but Carlson was able to hit a 41-yarder right down the middle at 12:59 of the second period. The Rebels matched that three-pointer with a 22-yarder by Joshua Shene at 8:30, though they had to settle for the field goal after reaching State's three-yard line with first-and-goal and missing three throws.
Mississippi State finally went the distance with a 80-yard drive to tie the tally. Dixon lined up at quarterback twice in the series, running first for eight yards and later handing off to Brandon Thornton for a 12-yard scamper down to the UM three-yard line. Dixon took a couple of shots at the goal line and on the second try dragged Willis across at 2:55 for a 10-10 scoreboard at the break. For the period the Dogs had a five-minute edge in possession time and had run nine more plays for 50 more yards. But they also should have scored more points, a fact that loomed large all through the deceptively decisive third period.
Things began changing when, after getting one first down, Conner was sacked by Rory Johnson on 3rd-and-9 and stayed down. "It hurt, he split my legs wide, I was hurting like crazy. But I told the doctors I wasn't coming off the field, I was going to play the whole game no matter what." The sack produced State's first punt of the day and Blake McAdams hit it well enough, for 44 yards. While the Rebels did not score points they did something almost as effective. Schaeffer hit Mike Wallace for 38 yards to the Bulldog 42 and when a punt was required Rob Park sliced it out-of-bounds on the six-yard line.
From then on "Our offense and defense in the second half was fighting a field position battle," Croom said. "Ultimately it got us." Because after two Dixon dives Conner unloaded for WR Jamayel Smith breaking clear of the end with lots of open ground ahead. He let the ball go off his hands and McAdams had to punt it back from his end zone, just 35 yards. A 23-yard Green return had the Rebels starting on State's 26. The Dog defense kept them out of the end zone after first-and-goal at the four so Shene bumped a 20-yarder through at 2:57 for a 13-10 lead.
State's response brought further frustration as after Dixon got a first down WR Lance Long let a throw go off his gloves and Conner missed WR Jamayel Smith at midfield. "If we had been able to move the ball out, at least change the field position, it would have been a different ball game," Croom said.
Special teams did produce a rare chance to do so early in the fourth quarter as CB Derek Pegues returned a punt 30 yards to the Bulldog 48. State did nothing with the opportunity. The next time the Dogs had the ball Conner, on 2nd-and-7 at his 32-yard line, forced a shot for WR Tony Burks coming across and had it picked off on the dive by Dustin Mouzon. Four snaps later the Rebels—who nearly made a half-back pass pay off before Pegues tipped it away--were punting again, and again rolled it out at the six-yard line.
When State punted it back Ole Miss did some back-breaking. Green took McAdams' poor 32-yard effort inside midfield, started right before spinning back left and down the sideline for the 47-yard return touchdown at 3:29. Quick as that it was a two-score lead of 20-10.
Conner did his part to slash the deficit, throwing on every snap of an eight-play drive. The big strikes were 28 yards to TE Eric Butler and 16 more to Burks. On 2nd-and-goal at the UM eight Conner practically stuck the ball in TE Jason Husband's chest at the goal line for the touchdown at 2:20. The Rebels easily caught the expected onsides kickoff and State only had two timeouts left.
But the Rebels gave the visitors undeserved chances, including calling time on their own at 0:55 on a third down. Then on 4th-and-1 sub-quarterback Seth Adams tried to dive for the first down. Not only was he ruled down short but a UM personal foul in the pileup meant State had the ball on the home 48 with 0:47 still on the clock. WR Will Prosser caught a ten-yard pass, then Dixon unwisely caught a shorter throw in bounds so Conner had to spike the ball at 12 seconds.
Conner put the ball on-target to Prosser on the right sideline near the 25-yard line, only to have it stripped away before a catch could be made. So at 0:06 the ball was still back on the 34, and the added distance probably factored into Carlson's miss. He hit it far enough, just not straight enough. "If we could have made that field goal I liked our odds," said Anderson. "We'll never know that now. But I thought we had the momentum right there."
"Carlson booted it, I thought it was straight-through," said Conner. "But I saw that signal and there goes my sad story." All the more so because his efforts were so otherwise inspiring. "Honestly, I was about 65%."
"It's a disappointing loss of course to us, and a positive victory I'm sure for Ole Miss," Croom said. "I want to congratulate them." Schaeffer was 9-of-19 throwing for 131 yards, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis got 37 of UM's 58 net rushing yards. That left the junior halfback one yard shy of 1,000 for his first Rebel season.
Even then the Bulldogs would have had the better of the numbers, offensive and defensive alike. But it would have taken a far more dominating statistical day to make up for the missed opportunities and misplayed kicking situations. In the end the Golden Egg went to the side that was more, well, specialized.
"Come down to it I think we did out-play them," said QB Omarr Conner. "We had our breaks, they had their breaks. They just made that one play in the kicking game."