"I felt all along this was going to be a great day in the history of Mississippi State football," Croom said. "But I had no idea it was going to come down to that." The Bulldogs ended the regular schedule 7-5, 4-4 SEC, and await their post-season bowl assignment.
The Rebels ended their year 3-9, 0-8, and utterly deflated as their last and best chance for a SEC victory was snatched away. Cruelly from their vantage point, fittingly to Bulldogs. "This was a good old-fashioned win," defensive end Titus Brown said. "We did it the hard way and it feels better when you lay all it on the line and it comes down to a matter of minutes and seconds to win. It's going to be a win that we all remember."
All the more so because for three-plus quarters it was shaping up as a loss these Dogs wouldn't be able to forget. The Rebels scored touchdowns on their first possessions of each half, which seemed more than sufficient as State's offense sputtered for almost 50 clock-minutes with no points and few first downs. And even after MSU did break through with one touchdown, an interception in the Rebel red zone that stopped what looked to be the tying drive should have sealed the issue.
"It was kind of ugly out there, I'm not going to lie to you," Brown said, before adding, "Ugly was beautiful today."
Because the Bulldogs overcame both the opponent and themselves when it mattered most--at crunch-time. "That fourth quarter wasn't about football," Croom said. "That fourth quarter was about what's inside a young man's heart. Because we'd been out-played for three quarters. The only reason we won the game was because of what is inside those young men."
And, because of two huge plays provided by kicking squads that had been low-profile in the preceding eleven games, at that. "Last year we lost (the Egg Bowl) on a couple of plays in special teams," Carlson said. "We knew we had to come out and play well on special teams, and we did it today."
Most obviously when the Rebels, leading 14-7, punted. Joshua Shene bumped the ball downfield as he had all afternoon to prevent MSU's Derek Pegues from creating big plays. On three previous returns Pegues managed just nine yards having played back on the bouncing ball. Not this time.
"I saw they were going to squib again and told myself I was going to scoot up ten, fifteen yards so it wouldn't get a lot of bounces," Pegues said. "I got a good bounce right to me." Not to mention good blocking which allowed Pegues to use some sideline advice. "Coach told me that they were lazy on the back-side of the return team, to get upfield first and lean-left and come to the right. I was able to ‘lean' them to the left then turn right and hit it straight-up the seam. It was a big hole."
Big enough that after shedding one ankle-tackle and beating another across midfield Pegues was gone all 75 yards for the tying touchdown at 2:38. Which was plenty time for more home-field fun as Ole Miss couldn't move the ball nor burn up all the remaining clock. A 3rd-and-8 throw from Brent Schaeffer to Justin Sparks should have produced a first down, except linebacker Jamar Chaney separated ball from receiver with a brutal stick.
"Earlier in the game I messed up on that, so I got where I was supposed to be," Chaney said. "When I turned the receiver was right there and I just went for him." The Rebels had to punt it away and while Pegues didn't get a chance to return State did have 43 seconds left to get in Carlson's range. It took just three snaps. Quarterback Wesley Carroll threw to halfback Anthony Dixon for six yards, intentionally ran for 11 more, and was able to get a throw to wideout Tony Burks 17 yards away at the Rebel 31-yard line.
Carroll spiked the ball at 0:18 and State, with no timeouts left, didn't take any chances. Carlson was waved in to try for a career-long effort of 48 yards. A year ago he'd missed wide-left from 51 yards on a desperation try to send the '06 Egg Bowl into overtime. On the home field this time, and with a nice breeze to his back, the junior had no worries about distance. "With the adrenalin pumping I knew the leg was there. I knew I had to get it up and not try to over-kick." He didn't, as Carlson cleanly booted the ball from Blake McAdams' hold with yards to spare and through the uprights.
"I looked up and knew," said Carlson, who oddly didn't bother to watch the ball go good. Everyone on the field and 51,727 in the grandstands were glad to watch for him. "I knew that was going through the whole time because he was due for that big game-winning kick," Carroll said. "And he executed real well."
"I'm so happy for Adam because a year ago he left there with his head and his heart in his hands, now he's the hero today," said Croom.
Which made goats of the Rebels, most notably head coach Ed Orgeron after some baffling tactical choices. None more so than when the Rebels had a two-score lead, possession on their 45-yard line, and a yard to go to keep the ball. The obvious percentage play would have been a punt, certainly given how Ole Miss had stifled State's offense all day. Instead the Rebel coach over-played his hand. "I guess they assumed they were going to put the nail in our coffin right there," said Croom. His reaction? "I thought Christmas had come early!"
"It was really insulting on 4th-and-1 and they try to go for it," linebacker Gabe O'Neal said. And foolish in retrospect as Keith Fitzhugh and Jasper O'Quinn caught Reb halfback BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a three-yard loss at 10:05.
"I knew when we stopped them having that field position we could make something happen quick," Carroll said. "And we did." Carroll, who'd completed just four-of-16 passes to that point, hit Jamayel Smith for eight yards, ran for eight on his own, and found Dixon for 17 more with a personal foul tacked-on. On second-and-goal Dixon ‘froze' the defensive end with a cut-fake, floated out to the right for Carroll's short throw and State's first touchdown at 7:51.
Carroll finished with 130 yards on 13-of-28 throwing. He was picked off on State's next possession, on first down at the UM twelve-yard line when he and wideout Lance Long mixed their directions. Safety Ashlee Palmer's 28-yard return should have been that coffin-nail the Rebels sought, but MSU's offense and Carroll would get another chance to come deliver. Which they did.
"We knew what we were capable of doing, it was just a matter of executing," Carroll said. "In the end we just needed a big play to get us motivated and get us going."
The Rebels didn't make many big plays, just enough medium and small ones through three periods to control the clock and scoreboard. Their ground game was far superior to State's by a 204 to 81 yard margin, with Green-Ellis picking up 117 on 29 totes and a first-drive touchdown. The real play-maker was quarterback Schaeffer with 54 net rushing yards and 115 more in the air on 10-of-30 throwing. Not a great percentage, but the senior showed a knack for converting third downs for three periods that resulted in a whopping 12:30 edge in possession time for the visitors.
"He made a lot of plays with his feet," O'Neal said. "He'd get out of the pocket and pull us out of the zone and throw balls behind our heads." Or just move the chains himself, as Ole Miss converted four third downs in the opening 75-yard drive with a pair of Schaeffer keepers and two more completions. It was a eight-yard squirt through right guard by Green-Ellis that got the touchdown at 10:18.
"Schaeffer made a lot of difference because he can run," Croom said. "That's an element pretty difficult to defend." Meanwhile the Rebel defense had a bead on State's gameplan, stacking the front against Dixon yet also getting outside pressure on Carroll. And when the Dogs did something well, such as a 27-yard reverse-run by Smith, a hold by fellow wideout Aubrey Bell negated much of the gain.
"We just didn't play like us," Croom said of the whole first half.
Schaeffer couldn't be consistent though, and a bobbled handoff recovered by defensive end Avery Hannibal halted one drive. State made nothing of it as Dixon tried to ‘stretch' on 4th-and-1 and got nothing at the Rebel 32-yard line. Ole Miss slowed themselves as well with a personal foul after a completion to the 18-yard line. Shene's 37-yard field goal attempt, with the wind, clanked off the left upright.
Orgeron out-coached his own team on a 4th-and-3 at midfield with a faked punt, short-snap, and no gain by Andy Hartmann. State had the ball back at 3:13 and Croom considered trying something dramatic. "But I thought OK, LSU all over again, let's just get to the dressing room and see if we can re-group." State couldn't quite run out the clock and the Rebels had 29 seconds and a couple of deep shots before the half ended with it still a 7-0 score. Ole Miss had 14 first downs and 219 yards; the Bulldogs two and 59.
"We had a little meeting at halftime, we said we've got to get this," Dixon said. But the Dogs got nothing to start the second half, other than what proved a propitious direction-of-play for the fourth quarter. That didn't appear to be of much good when Ole Miss manufactured their second touchdown drive with Schaeffer throwing for 12, 13, and finally 13 more to a wide-open Shay Hodge in the end zone. The Rebels had doubled their lead and burned half of the third quarter in the process.
Yet it would be their last points, even after Dixon fumbled at the UM 46-yard line. He redeemed himself with a 53-yard catch from Mike Henig, who took Carroll's place for two third-quarter series so the starter could relax and refocus. Had Hodge come down with Schaeffer's throw at the MSU 20-yard line it likely wouldn't have mattered as nothing was between target and goal line.
Still, "We knew the whole game we could come back any time," said Carroll. "Any one big play would get us going." The defense provided it with the fourth-down stop, putting the offense in positive field-position to produce one touchdown. Then even after what should have been a soul-stopping turnover State still had enough faith and fire to complete the comeback. And more.
In fact, "After we stopped them we knew pretty much we were going to win the game," claimed Chaney. A bold comment to say the least. Yet as they took the Golden Egg to their locker room the Bulldogs had earned the right to speak their minds. And if the process was more traumatic than planned, the result was worth it all. Especially to seniors like Blackledge.
"I think it makes it a little bit sweeter to have done it that way!"