My own ears are still ringing, because I was standing right behind that same end zone for the entire decisive period. We scribes typically vacate the press box midway of the fourth quarter, but for some reason I came down at the change of periods. Why, I'm not sure still, though the chance to stand in the sunshine and maybe shake some chill after hours in a freezing press box was likely one factor. Or maybe, just maybe, memories of 1999 when I stood at the same end line in another fourth quarter, when another Bulldog team down and seemingly done-for pulled off what, at the time, was the most frenzied, frantic, and even unfathomable comeback in my Scott Field memory. By scoring two touchdowns and kicking a field goal.
Well. Who says history rarely repeats itself? So what if this was a different MSU era, a different regime, and about three player-generations later? With yours truly standing in the same locale, albeit this time sans camera, another Bulldog bunch rallies for two touchdowns and wins on a field goal to crush Ole Miss hearts. And, it appears, give whatever extra evidence the Oxford powers needed to justify shoving their boy out into the street after some absolutely no-doubt statements of honorable intent of what, just a month ago? Funny how fast things can and do change in this business.
Just like a certain rivalry football game can, and obviously did in only ten amazing minutes. Because there's a reasonably reliable witness, and he no media member, I feel safe relating a pair of inspired Friday fourth-quarter personal predictions made from my self-assigned spot when it was still a 14-7 score. Just as Ole Miss was lining up for a punt, as they should have but fortunately did not a series earlier, I mentioned that Derek Pegues was overdue for a big return. Seconds later young Derek was coasting to a stop less than ten yards from my post and the home crowd howling over the tying touchdown.
Well, I promptly road the moment's momentum to forecast to the same fellow observer that the game was going to come down to an Adam Carlson kick and a chance to make up for missing that desperate last-shot of the 2006 Egg Bowl. Again, there's a witness, and no, we did not immediately call a broker to press this stretch of hot forecasting prowess. I'd rather push what's left of any personal luck by columnizing about this latest and so-far greatest step along the long road to Mississippi State success. And yes, while coaches and athletes prefer to speak of ‘making luck' I've no problem admitting it is part of the game. I mean, if a certain Rebel wideout comes down with an easy catch and open touchdown in the third quarter, we Bulldog folk have little to celebrate at the end of the 2007 regular season.
Now having wasted space bragging, it's only honorable to relate an editorial error in forecasting also made to witnesses back in August. Though since most of them imbibe they've likely forgotten I projected these Bulldogs would win five games overall with a pair of SEC conquests. Which at the time would have been accepted by the majority of Bulldog Country as reasonable progress in Coach Sylvester Croom's fourth season. Safe to say that Croom & Co. more than exceeded even the most optimistic '07 outlooks with seven victories, a 4-4 league record, wins over three of the four chiefest rivals…and the bowl bid to come no later than next Sunday.
Which if we just guess today would be from either the Liberty or Music City classics. Four Liberty scouts were in Croom's postgame press-fest from start to finish, and I mentioned to one if State does go to Memphis I'll have my '91 Liberty Bowl watch repaired for the occasion. I'm not dissing the Nashville bowl, by the way; but since by policy they rarely send reps to games it's harder to judge their interest. And both bowls pick at the ‘same' time per SEC deals, so I'd expect a degree of dealing between the Tennessee towns on who each wants most.
As for State fans they seem content with either destination with Memphis having a slight edge based on travel convenience, day, date, and time. I've no preference or prejudice either way, though it would be interesting to get in a SEC-ACC matchup with the chance of completing the all-sports 2007 trifecta against Florida State.
For that matter I'm still in the Golden after-glow stage where bowling is just a holiday bonus; bringing the Egg back home and locking up State's first winning season of the decade (do I need to explain zero-years again?) is sufficiently rewarding for any Bulldog. For that matter I loved Croom's comment yesterday of how he sees a bowl game. Fans and media focus on the next-year benefits of extra practices and play; Croom wants these Bulldogs to have fun right-now because they've done plenty of work already to get here.
"We'll go somewhere and have a good time wherever we go," Croom said. "This is one area I always differ with my former head coach in college, because the four bowl games I went to were miserable. We're going to make this one fun for our players."
Until then it's fun savoring 2007 success in general and how the regular schedule ended most of all. Not that the outlook was brilliant for 50 minutes of course. There seemed the very good, or bad, chance State's last home game would end like the first; in a shutout loss. Though getting whupped by LSU would be infinitely more acceptable than a blanking by Rebels. Especially this edition of an unsavory tribe. All week I had ironic images of Saturday headlines how Ole Miss ‘stole' the Egg. Thus my sardonic grin this morning when my walking-route extended around Scott Field and the big banner-M clock still safely prominent on the Wade Depot north wall. Hey, you can't be too careful in these crime-ridden times. Maybe tomorrow's journals will see some clever columnist quipping about the ‘clock running out' on somebody in Oxford today, but you read it here first.
Writing about this victory wasn't easy, as there were soooo many prime story lines. The Carlson angle was tempting of course, and the junior did get his chance to…well, ‘redeem' is the word being tossed around but I still don't hold that 51-yard miss in Oxford agin' the kid under those desperate end-game circumstances. But he was glad for the opportunity to win this one outright, though at the same time actually perhaps the coolest guy in post-game. Kickers, what can I say? And let's not forget a fortuitous choice of directions that had State going with the fourth-quarter wind. Carlson admits he could not have hit a 48-yarder into yesterday's breeze.
Then there was the contrast in decision-making all day that ultimately showed in the outcome. I mean on fourth downs by both sidelines. On State's very first series it was 4th-and-1 at the Dog 47-yard line and, down 7-0 already, I confess: I hoped Croom would go for it. He didn't, not that time; though two turns later State did try needing one yard at the Rebel 32 only to see…well, Anthony Dixon try to dance instead of pound as is still his crunch-down tendency. AD, bud, we gotta talk. Then there was the 4th-and-1 on State's initial turn of the last half where Croom resisted temptation to make a statement to fans and foes. I doubt anyone was wroth with going on 4th-and-10 in the third quarter at UM's 34, even if Mike Henig was sacked. Re: the wrong-wind-way of that period.
As Croom said later, "You can't let your emotions dictate what you do, you've got to be reasonable." Except for their part the Rebels were reckless, such as the faked punt at midfield in the second quarter that came to nought. But nothing, nothing compared to the startling choice at the UM45 with the clock nearing 10:00 of the last quarter to try for a yard. Yeah, if they get it the nail is in the coffin…but State had all of four first downs to their credit to that point and at worst a punt has State starting around their 20.
As Croom said, "I thought Christmas had come early." Because about the only way the Dogs were going to start a comeback was a gift of field position…and Ole Miss presented it with everything but a bow and card. And here's the other twist to that situation, the way the Rebs had played so safely sitting on what looked like a darn secure 14-0 lead to then. As linebacker Gabe O'Neal put it, "I thought they just put it in cruise-control, don't make mistakes and try to pound the ball. It turned out to be a mistake."
I could have pursued either as the main story-line. But honestly, the 2007 Egg Bowl is more than just one game, one win, one page in program history. It's better seen in the context of where the Bulldogs have come from, where they are, and where they presumably are still heading. And, in a way that might not appeal at first to some. To wit, consider some of the angry message board comments we saw even after victory and the Egg were secured, about how badly the Bulldogs had chosen to play in such a crucial context. Offensively, that is; few can critique a defense that managed to keep State in the contest with absolutely no scoring or field-position support.
What most critics really wanted was a romp over the rival Rebs on the home field. Understandable. Yet, dare I posit that winning this year's way was both that much more painful to the Bad Guys—and costly to their coaching staff—as well as encouraging to the Bulldogs? Let's put it another way; in a long, detailed rebuilding process it can be just as important for a team to win a game they don't entirely deserve as it is to rack up routine Ws. Sure, if a team goes that route too often they might take such things for granted and fall into bad habits. But I kinda doubt Croom would allow any such MSU mentality. Meanwhile it can't but be a good thing for Dogs to have first-hand proof that they can come back from double-digit deficits even in waning minutes, and against a conference opponent. They've done it once, they can do it again.
Besides. This win will be enjoyed all the more by a bunch of guys who faced down disaster, made plays in all aspects of the game, and have a big shiny Golden Egg in their possession for a full year. And longer if the underclassmen, redshirts, and presumed recruits continue Croom's course. What message did he take from this game, this season? "If you hang in there your day will come," the coach said. He was speaking of the team, not himself, but either angle would be accurate. And Croom continued by saying that now he thinks State is ahead of the ‘schedule' only he knows. "I thought next year would be our first winning season," he admitted. "Especially early in the year." And all the moreso after losing two starting quarterbacks and having to put a true freshman under-center.
Yet because of all the foundation work done in retraining hold-over players from the previous regime, recruiting new personnel, and just slogging through three brutal years on and off the field, the '07 Bulldogs were already strong enough of body, mind, and yes heart, to fit in a kid QB and win enough games to qualify for post-season participation. A lot of guys sacrificed more than we media and fans can appreciate along the way, and most aren't seeing their names here or elsewhere. Though I don't think any mind being spoken-for by Titus Brown, Royce Blackledge, et.al. It's part of being a true team. And make no mistake, the process is far from finished.
The offense obviously has plenty room for progress, yet the pieces are in places now to see the potential. Especially if young Robert Elliot can become the ‘home run' threat needed in the backfield to round out the package. Then, then we'll see the sorts of plays called on the field that State has practiced for three years but not brought into a gameplan because the execution isn't there. Woodrow McCorvey is not the stolid coordinator many seem to believe. Just wait. Defensively oh, how we'll miss Titus and ‘Caveman' Hannibal…but there are more ends ready to rotate in while the tackles continue developing. Everything else is there already, though I'm antsy about how Anthony Johnson comes back from the broken ankle. And as glad as we are for Carlson after all the ire aimed his way, a healthy Eric Richards is just what is needed for spring competition.
"We're going to have some good players coming back," Croom said yesterday. "We have some good guys committed, and we've got a few left we think we're going to get in and some who can be impact players. And we redshirted a good freshman class. So we should be a better football than we were this year." Against a somewhat encouraging schedule, too, I have to add. This is a big part of the bowl-month fun, talking as much about the next season as this post-season.
By the way, there's someone else who should be taking a bow now even as he's soon to bow-out. This was a huge and fitting exclamation point for athletics director Larry Templeton as he nears the end of his lifetime career with Mississippi State sports. His football team, run by a guy he daringly selected four years ago, just beat the bitterest foe of all on the home field across the street from where he grew up. Not a bad way to finish, eh? Still we shouldn't lose sight of who is 2007's biggest Bulldog winner.
Sylvester Croom's cool cracked a few times Saturday, not just when he grabbed that flag either. The cameras caught him choking up in post-win interviews on the field, and he had to pause during the press conference as well. He earned the right. I don't pretend to appreciate all the man has endured these four years since signing on to pilot a sunken ship. Nor do I pretend to be impartial in the matter: I like Coach Croom, the man and the mentor alike. If there are times when his statements week-to-week come off as contradictory, well, it's a measure of the emotion the man puts into this job and these young men. Put another way, he talks from the heart and not from calculation with all the inherent P.R. risks. And always, always, he is speaking to the only people that matter: the players.
They have listened, accepted, achieved, and won. So has Mississippi State, which includes all of us who care about this fascinating, frustrating, and yes often infuriating institution. I mean from the youngest fall freshman to, well, to S.D. Lee himself. And I'd just about swear, this morning the old boy's bronze face sure seemed to show a sly, satisfied smile.