"Maybe to the contrary of what other people are saying in this state, I know one program that's certainly on the rise," Mullen said. "And that's right here in Starkville." The Bulldogs ended year-one of the Mullen era 5-7, 3-5 SEC. Meanwhile the Rebels left 8-4 and 4-4 SEC, still headed for a bowl but surely shorn of their #20 ranking.
State's win was the sixth-straight time the host school took possession of the Golden Egg. It was also the first home win for Mullen since opening this season by beating Jackson State, but the victory—and manner of same—eased a whole year's worth of frustrations. And the 41 points put up by the Bulldogs were not only the most from State this season; it was the highest tally against the arch-rival Rebels since 1917.
And it was achieved by the Bulldogs simply overpowering Ole Miss as nobody had done all season. State pounded out 317 yards of rushing with senior RB Anthony Dixon getting 133 of that on 29 carries with a touchdown. In the process Dixon capped his MSU career by adding the single-season rushing record (now 1,391) to his list of career and single-game running marks.
But equally it was the footwork of alternate QB Chris Relf that won the Dogs' day. The sophomore shredded the rightly-touted Rebel defense for 131 yards on just 15 totes, a 8.7 average, and scored what proved the deciding fourth-quarter touchdown. He produced the most ground yards by a Bulldog quarterback since 2000. Relf only had to throw five times but completed three…and two of those went for touchdowns including the go-ahead score in the third quarter. Starter Tyson Lee was 5-of-9 for 52 yards as State needed only 95 total throwing yards.
Ole Miss by contrast had to rely on the strong arm of Jevan Snead, and he was able to deliver 275 yards on 17-of-29 accuracy with three touchdowns. But, he also had three throws end up in Bulldog hands and one of those was returned for State's concluding points. Brilliant back/end Dexter McCluster was held mostly in-check until shaking loose for a 52-yard touchdown on Ole Miss' final possession, far too late to impact anything but MSU's margin of victory. McCluster had 82 yards on 16 runs, and 63 yards on five catches.
The Bulldogs called the coin toss rightly and deferred, an interesting choice given the team's track record on kickoffs. And indeed Ole Miss got to start at their 32 after a high, short kick. A couple of completions netted one first down and when State blitzed on 3rd-and-7 Markeith Summers was left open for a ten-yard gain to the Bulldog 44. On 3rd-and-2 the Rebels lined up as if to punt, which fooled no one and State even played for the fake. But Billy Tap still had time to throw long and find Reggie Hicks, though S Charles Mitchell miss-timed his play on the ball and gave up first down at the 17. Three snaps later Joshua Shene chipped the 26-yard field goal through for a 3-0 lead at 7:59.
Starting at their 20, the Bulldogs didn't take long to cross midfield. A second-down play fake left TE Marcus Green open for a grab-and-go worth 23 yards and an ankle-tackle from a touchdown. On third down Lee found WR Chad Bumphis on a slip-screen for 11 more, then Lee read the rush and called his own number for 22 yards to the Rebel 18.
A reverse to WR Leon Berry and Dixon pitch-sweep made it first-and-goal at the eight but soon the Bulldog faced third down from the nine and protection broke down. Changing quarters meant Derek DePasquale had to wait before trying his 28-yarder on the other end and evening the score at 14:57.
In the next 71 seconds action and emotions took two complete turns. McCluster caught Snead's swing-out throw only to be stripped by LB K.J. Wright with LB Jamar Chaney recovering at the Rebel 35. But a pitch-play to Dixon managed to lose all the way back to the 44. And real Dog disaster struck as Lee's try for Bumphis was tipped by Jonathan Cornell and picked by Patrick Trahan who got to State's 38-yard line.
The Dogs brought a corner-blitz on third down which only freed the whole left side for Patterson to make the 15-yard catch. On 3rd-and-5 Snead fired into the end zone where backup CB Damein Anderson tipped the throw away, so Shene put his team back in front with a 29-yard field goal at 11:08.
Berry brought the kickoff out of the end zone only 17 yards, and Lee's third-down throw was behind target so Heath Hutchins got off the game's first punt; a 48-yarder. Three McCluster carries netted 11 yards, then the turn ended as Snead led his target too much for a clean catch in-bounds. This time Ole Miss did punt, with a fair-catch by Bumphis at the 19.
Relf's first real snap of the day produced a 28-yard keeper, and RB Robert Elliott added a quick ten of his own to the OM 42. Relf might have had another big gainer but miss-read his blocking and was held to three yards, so on 3rd-and-7 Lee returned and drilled Dixon at the 27. Then it was Relf's turn again and he slanted through right tackle and had to be dragged down by Kendrick Lewis at the five-yard line.
Mullen called for time at 4:34, and on first down Relf got 4-1/2 yards. But a sweep by Dixon lost back almost to the three. State came back with another sweeper but this time to the wide, left side of the field. Dixon barely out-ran support from Cornell and Emmanuel Stephens and still had to stretch the ball out as far as possible to top the pylon before being knocked out. Even then it took a few moments for the linesman to remember the formality of signaling a touchdown, and then review the play. It stood up and State had gone in front 10-6 at 3:22. It was also the first Bulldog rushing score in the Egg Bowl since 2006.
But by 1:01 the lead had changed back. Starting from their 27 the Rebels got an instant 22 yards by McCluster around left end; then completions to Hodge and Summers gave first down at the Bulldog 23-yard line. On 2nd-and-7 Sneed threw into the end zone where CB Marcus Washington had inside position and Hodge got away with some shoving from behind. But the ball was batted up and startlingly landed in Hodge's belly for the improbable touchdown and 13-10 score. The Bulldogs ran out their remaining 55 seconds with a couple of Dixon dives.
State opened the new half with a pair of first downs, as Dixon ran for ten yards and Relf kept for 20 more, though he came off the field with his left arm hanging. Lee lost seven on a first-down sack and Dixon could only get to 3rd-and-9 at the 32. Mullen gave DePasquale a chance to show his leg and the junior hit it well for a career-long 48-yard field goal and 13-13 deadlock at 11:38.
The Bulldogs had the ball back soon enough as on third down DE Sean Ferguson blitzed Snead into throwing low. Starting from the 30, Dixon moved the chains with two totes; then three Relf runs made it first down at the Rebel 44. Relf also muscled for needed gain on 3rd-and-2, then on 3rd-and-1 at the 26 Dixon burst through right guard and got down to the Ole Miss four.
With second down at the three and a wishbone set the whole house looked for a Dixon attempt of some sort. Except with the Rebel front frozen for a dive, Relf was able to step back and loft a strike to Green in the end zone at 4:07 for the go-ahead Bulldog touchdown. The 13-play drive had consumed almost six minutes.
And 74 seconds later the Bulldogs had the ball back, as on 3rd-and-3 Sneed went to the air. This time Mitchell timed his moves perfectly, stepping in front for the pick at his own 45 and getting as far as the Rebel 34 before 3 slung him out of bounds. Two Dixon dives netted a yard and Elliott was caught on a draw at the 34. But as Mullen considered how to kick coordinator Les Koenning called a pass play. And it worked, if not as designed.
Because with excellent protection Relf used his height to read things and pick a second receiver, finding Bumphis in a hole around the ten-yard line. The rest was up to the gifted rookie as he leapt for the catch, came down ready to run, spun off Lewis, broke out of Marshay Green's grasp, and dodged by two last-chance tacklers for the stunning touchdown at 0:38 and 27-13 lead.
Ole Miss wasn't going away so easily though as Snead struck for 25 yards and the quarters changed with second down on State's 48-yard line. Play-action bought the passer time as Summers simply ran by rookie safety Johnathan Banks for the easy in-stride catch and a touchdown at 14:53.
But having cut their deficit to a single score, the Rebels gave away any momentum with a short kickoff of their own. Bumphis made them pay with a 34-yard return that had five more yards tacked-on as the kicking team had been offsides. Here State's confidence in the ground game paid off with a eight-run drive for the remaining 46 yards. Key was a 3rd-and-5 handoff--!—that Dixon cracked by sheer effort for seven amazing yards and fresh set of downs.
Bumphis was given consecutive chances as well getting seven and seven yards on carries. With first down on the Rebel ten Relf took the snap, hesitated long enough to judge the defense's flow, and cut through right tackle behind a monster block from pulling LG Quentin Saulsberry for the touchdown keeper and 34-20 lead at 10:56.
State's defense kept the emotions high as corner Washington came up to nearly de-cleat McCluster on a sweep. Next snap, with DT Fletcher Cox coming hard, Snead threw too hard and high with the tipped ball ending up in Mitchell's hands for a 22-yard return to the OM24. The Bulldogs could have absolutely put it away then and Relf, Elliot, and Dixon muscled the ball down to the one-yard line with first down. But wanting to get a touchdown in his last game senior RB Arnil Stallworth tried poking it across the goal; it came loose with LaMark Armour recovering at the one.
McCluster broke it out of the goalpost shadows with a 14-yard scamper and Snead threw to Lionel Breaux for 24 yards to the Reb 48. A 19-yard strike to Hodge converted 4th-and-17 no less. But on the next play Snead simply threw to a spot where no teammate stood; only CB Corey Broomfield, who picked it at the 36 and started down the right sideline. He had some fun with Snead too, making him miss a tackle-try at the 11 before angling on into the end zone at 5:17 for the backbreaking touchdown.
Snead and McCluster still had some stats left to gain, and did so after getting the kickoff at their 48. A medium-range throw turned into a huge gainer as McCluster showed his full ability on a skittering dash the rest of the way, cutting the deficit to 41-27. But it was too late to change the outcome because the Bulldogs covered the on-sides kick and used up the rest of the clock on nine rushes, with Mullen calling Relf and then Lee to take the knees after reaching the Rebel four.
Before the final seconds ticked away the Golden Egg had been taken from secure storage and was in DT Kyle Love's big hands, the first of many Dogs to take turns parading the all-important trophy to the majority of crowd that hung around. They also got to hear Mullen make an impromptu speech from the field and if the coach talked a bit quickly for the sound system nobody really needed to hear the specific words.
Because they knew, as their coach would say, that a program is indeed on the rise in Starkville.