"It feels good to be a champion, to go out with a win," said senior defensive end Titus Brown, while waving to what he figured was "50,000" State fans. A high estimate, but certainly most of the Liberty Bowl-record crowd of 63,816 were celebrating along with their Bulldogs. "That felt better than any home game this year," Croom raved. The official ‘home' team Knights, champions of Conference USA, finished 10-4 as their seven-win streak ended.
But not until 0:17, when State safety Derek Pegues broke up a fourth-down throw for end Brian Watters on UCF's final chance. Only then could Mississippi State let all the emotions flow and show after an always-tense, usually-frustrating, and often-ugly evening in Memphis. Not that the Dogs were fretting failure, they claimed.
"That's us," said Pegues, who had two first-half interceptions—the first setting up State's only other points on a second-quarter field goal—and was named both the MSU Outstanding Defensive Player as well as the game's Most Valuable Player. "As long as we get the victory we don't care if we win by one point or 21 points. The win is all that matters. Our team is about grind it out, play good defense, run the ball and stop the run."
That was the Saturday script for both sides. Croom and UCF counterpart, old friend George O'Leary, brought fundamental, physical ball clubs to town, and game-plans obviously similar. For four quarters it was trench warfare with only matching field goals to show. In fact, defense so dominated that neither offense converted a third down until the third quarter, and the total yardage—219 for the Knights on 71 plays, 191 for State on ten fewer snaps—looked more like the halftime stats of some bowl games this winter.
Which was just the way both coaches probably preferred. Especially Croom, who counted on SEC-State being able to pound, and take pounding, better and longer. "We finally found some things they couldn't stop. We finally wore them down, too, with our size. We knew it was going to be a slug-fest and finally our size and our team speed finally wore them down."
Central Florida brought one of the best sluggers in the land in halfback Kevin Smith. The junior not only came in as the national leader in both scoring and rushing yards, but 181 yards shy of setting the NCAA single-season rushing record. Smith ran often and well with 35 totes but was limited to 119 yards and 3.4 average. And, held out of the end zone entirely. In fact the Knights only once reached the Bulldog ‘red zone' and still came away with no points.
"We knew coming in we'd have a tough obstacle in stopping Kevin Smith," said Brown. "We tried to stop the run and make them one-dimensional, and throw the ball to our strength." The tactic worked out well as Knights quarterback Kyle Israel put 24 balls in the air for 88 yards of gains. Only 13 of his throws were completed and three of them to Bulldogs, with Pegues snaring a pair of second-quarter picks and safety Keith Fitzhugh grabbing the third; the one that was turned into State's touchdown drive.
Israel was also sacked three times and put on the run many more. "We just kept trying to get pressure on him and make him throw the ball so we could get interceptions," defensive end Avery Hannibal said.
State had its own heavyweight puncher in Dixon. He couldn't reach 100 yards for the night but did surpass 1,000 for the season, on a six-yard dash at the end of the first quarter. And it was his 24th and final chance that produced the last of his 86 net yards and the winning points, which meant much more than any stats.
"We wanted our #24 to shine through that #24," quarterback Wesley Carroll said. "Today he showed what he's capable of doing, our defense shut down their #24, and that's why we won."
But Carroll deserved a significant share of the credit for State's victory as well. Again not for sheer numbers: 8-of-18 passing, 39 yards, an interception. It was the precocious kid's pure presence and assertiveness at crunch-time that transformed a struggling—to most eyes anyway—offense into an efficient machine at the best possible time. When Fitzhugh picked off Israel at State's 41-yard line with 5:47 to work with, Carroll urged and convinced the staff to take advantage of a tiring UCF defense with a specific attack.
"I told Coach we have got to run the option out of the gun if we get good field position," said Carroll, who'd sat out the preceding MSU series. "Because there was no way they were stopping it. We knew we could eat up a lot of clock. I'd be willing to say they expected us to throw it on them, but I told Coach we've got to pound the ball up the middle and run the option out of the gun. There was no way of them stopping it unless we stopped ourselves."
"Wes came over and said I can run the option and I can make it work," Croom said. Which Carroll did. After keeping UCF in the same mind-set with a Dixon dive, the quarterback spun out and around the end for consecutive nine-yard gainers.
"It was all about reading it," said Carroll. "If we get four yards we're successful. So it worked out." Well enough to loosen the coverage, that another roll-out brought halfback Christian Ducre open for a seven-yard completion to the 29-yard line. Then Brandon Hart got into the act with his own catch, broken tackle, and first down on the 18. "Spreading them out definitely helped," Carroll said.
The Knights definitely weren't looking for what came on 2nd-and-9. In the first period wideout Tony Burks had netted 11 yards on a reverse; "We came back to it," Croom said. Going right-to-left the senior flanker got clean around the end and was only knocked out of bounds at the three-yard line. But there was no mystery about what—or rather who--would be coming next…and Carroll had something to say about that, too.
"I told him Booby, no matter what we've got first and goal, just hold on to the ball!" Carroll reported. "He was down on himself early in the game but he came back real strong for us." Dixon had been disappointed by failing to score from the two-yard line in the second quarter, when State had to settle for a tying field goal instead of taking a lead.
"I didn't want nobody to touch the ball but me," ‘Booby' Dixon agreed. On first-and-goal he thought a hole was opening on the back-side; he was dragged down with the ball not even a foot from the goal-stripe. There was no reading on the second down; Dixon jumped at the space above center Royce Blackledge's right shoulder guard Mike Gate's left shoulder. It was the sophomore's first ‘vault' attempt as a collegian.
"I was like man, I'm on ESPN, I want to jump over the line so they can have it on TV tonight!" he grinned. And networks everywhere were soon showing Dixon sticking the pigskin through the proverbial plane at 1:54.
The end-game drama, and production, belied most of the evening's offensive futility. Central Florida's first five possessions ended in punts; the Bulldogs punted five of their first six turns away and the other ended with Carroll's deep-throw for Burks intercepted by Johnell Neal. State also cost themselves a promising drive with a holding penalty.
"We had a lot of good plays called but they had a lot of good plays to defend it," Carroll said. "They were just really disciplined on defense and stopped a lot of plays we've been able to use throughout the season." UCF also punted more efficiently that kept field position slightly to their favor. A short boot by Bulldog Blake McAdams had the Knights starting on State's 46-yard line; five plays later Michael Torres made good on a 45-yard field goal at 11:49 of the second period.
Dog-ged defense came through a turn later though as on 3rd-and-11 Israel fired downfield where Pegues was lurking. "We knew by watching film their quarterback likes to stare down receivers. I was able to get a good read off his eyes, and he threw the ball right to me." Pegues was also headed in the right direction already, only stopped 40 yards later at the six-yard line by traffic in both jersey-colors. Soon State was regretting not getting Pegues into the end zone as Dixon lost three yards on 2nd-and-goal from the two; then an unblocked-blitzer forced Carroll to unload early. Adam Carlson chipped the 22-yarder through for a tied scoreboard at 6:02. It was still 3-3 at the break; the teams had a combined 163 yards of offense and Smith accounted for 85 of that.
Israel's third period was his best with completions of ten, seven, and ten yards set up a 32-yard field goal try for Torres. He was wide-right at 5:03. Croom resisted temptation on a 4th-and-long one at State's 41-yard line and punted. A late hit (really a late two-handed shove) by LB Jamar Chaney gave UCF a free first down, and wideout Rocky Ross slipped open for a 17-yard gainer to open the fourth period. This drive reached State's 20-yard line; again Torres was sent to kick, and again he missed it wide to keep the Bulldogs within a three-pointer.
State had a gift-wrapped opportunity when Israel and Smith botched a handoff, the fumble recovered by linebacker Gabe O'Neal on the Knight 37-yard line. Nothing came of it as Henig, subbed-in this series, missed Ducre and tight end Jason Husband. "We put Mike in because they were definitely vulnerable to throwing the football," Croom said. It didn't work out, but McAdams—having a tough night of his own—picked a perfect time for his best punt. Cornerback Marcus Washington downed it on the eight-yard line at 10:16.
Then Washington was flagged for holding Ross on a 3rd-and-7 throw that should have been ruled uncatchable, out of bounds. Even a holding penalty was overcome as Israel found open targets. But on 3rd-and-6 at his 45 he didn't have the time as tackle Cortez McCraney came clean up the middle for pressure, and the throw was intercepted by Fitzhugh.
"I was snooping on the tight end and saw him break and once I broke with him I saw the ball come and just had to go for it," Fitzhugh said. He got it, the offense got one more chance to cash in a Knight giveaway, and the Bulldogs got their victory. Maybe not a pretty one in the box score or to uninvolved observers…but to Mississippi State everything looked just beautiful, from the scoreboard to the trophy proudly paraded across the field.
"I've said quite often, we don't need style points," said Croom. "We just find a way to win."
But the underlying story to the 2007 Liberty Bowl championship was what it said about, and for, all the Bulldogs who worked for just such a success since Sylvester Croom came to Starkville in December 2003. Rebuilding the program was not a pretty process either, and the handful of fourth- and fifth-year seniors on the game roster suffered long and often along the way. Yet with their bowl championship secured and trophy earned, these departing Dogs didn't mind it. Nor were they thinking only of themselves.
"It means a whole lot to us," said Hannibal for these seniors. "Because we've been through the years when we struggled to win, and now we're winning. And we've got some good fans who stuck with us. And now we're happy."