Conner grew up in the bitter battle of Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He was recruited by both schools as a former five-star prospect out of South Panola, a powerhouse Mississippi high school program 25 minutes up the road from Oxford.
So motivation won’t be an issue for Conner when the teams face off for 113th time in history Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Conner not only wants to keep the Golden Egg with the Rebels, but as a senior, he doesn’t want to see his college career end with a thud. Not to Mississippi State. Never to Mississippi State.
Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 SEC) is a win away from bowl eligibility.
“This game right here means a lot to everybody around here, our fans especially,” Conner said. “Our fans always tell us we can lose every game, but make sure we win the Egg Bowl.”
Conner said the reality of his final home game inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium “hasn’t hit me yet.” But he can’t escape the finality of what’s approaching in but a few short days. He said he’s been trying this week “to get the guys fired up.” He wants to go out on the right note.
“I met with the secondary guys on Monday and talked to them,” Conner said. “I let them know how important this game really is. I tell them all the time that this game is one of the most important games of the season. I mean, all games are important, but this one right here means the most.
“(Injured Ole Miss defensive end) John Youngblood, he would do anything just to be out here with the guys. On that note, with his injury and everything, he can't. So I told him God has a reason for everything. Trying to get these guys fired up, with John Youngblood coming to talk to these guys, I'm really sure that they are really fired up about this game.”
Mississippi State is 4-7 on the year and 2-5 in SEC games. The Bulldogs are led by sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who has thrown for 2,178 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s also run for a conference-best 12 touchdowns.
“We've just got to out there and execute,” Conner said, when asked of the game plan to stop Fitzgerald. “Just do our job. We have to fill our correct gaps and alignment and assignment. We've just got to go out there and do our part. If we execute on our part, I'm pretty sure we can stop the run.
“With the run reads and everything, you really don't know who the quarterback is giving the ball to or is he going to keep it. It just comes back to alignment and assignment and eye discipline. You’ve just got to read your cues right.”
Should the Rebels pull out a win Saturday, Conner and his fellow senior classmates will have guided Ole Miss to four straight bowl games, including back-to-back New Year’s Six games. Their four-year win total of 32 is the second-best of any Ole Miss class since freshmen began playing in the early 1970s.
A fact not lost on Conner.
“We've just got to end this season on a right note,” he said. “Like I said, I met with the young guys on Monday and talked to those guys about how important this game really is. I told them as they're walking through the Grove on Saturday, the fans, they’ll tell them also. They don't care how many games we lose, as long as we win this Egg Bowl it really means a lot to those guys and to our coaching staff. It just let's the guys know who gets the bragging rights.”
On how he’s felt the second half of the season: “I feel a lot more comfortable. As the season first started I wasn't just as comfortable as usual with the brace and everything on. As the season kept on going, I just felt more and more comfortable every game. I feel a whole lot more comfortable right now.”
On how frustrated he’s been about the ongoing struggles defensively: “It just comes back to alignment and assignment. We've just got to execute on our part. Things we've been messing up on is just people have been doing too much of their own thing. As you can tell, once we go out there and execute as the ‘landshark’ defense as we normally do, we're capable of getting the job done.”
On if effort has been there all season: “We've just got to get to the ball. We know we mess up on our own with just things that we do. We're getting out of pocket on our own on defense. Once we come back out and just execute on everything, you can tell that we normally get the job done.”