The first thing that crossed my mind when my eyes popped open early this morning was a sense of relief.
Not for myself or Rebel fans or Ed Orgeron or the coaching staff, but for the players on the 2006 team, young and old.
With all the older guys had been through in the last three years, and with all the effort they put into this season despite having their hearts ripped out time and time again with close losses, it would have been a crying shame for them to lose the last game of the season to in-state rival Mississippi State.
I realize MSU has been through the same things and had endured similar setbacks. I realize those kids work hard too. All college teams do. But the Bullies – heading into yesterday's tilt – had accomplished something the Rebs hadn't. They had a "big" win when they traveled to Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks ago and knocked off Alabama.
It was the Rebs' turn to taste victory. They got it with a 20-17 triumph in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on a beautiful fall day.
And, personally, I wasn't looking for style points. Just a "W," in any shape, form or fashion.
Most of this season has been about one thing. Making plays, or not making them, when they were needed the most. Yesterday, the Rebels were opportunistic enough to pull out the win. They found a way to win.
DE Greg Hardy snagging a 23-yard TD pass in his first play as a collegiate wide receiver; freshman PK Joshua Shene making two short field goals when the opportunities were there; WR Marshay Green taking advantage of soft MSU coverage on a late punt for a game-winning return via a bone-rattling block by Peria Jerry; CB Dustin Mouzon getting a late interception to thwart one MSU attempt at a comeback; MLB Patrick Willis killing one MSU drive with a pile-driving sack of the resilient Omar Conner in Rebel territory; the defense stepping up to slow down RB Anthony Dixon, who had terrorized them in the first half, in the second half; Punter Rob Park nailing MSU deep in their territory on two or three punts; and so on.
In college football, these days, it seems less and less about stats and more and more about timely playmaking. So many teams seem "even." Games seem to be decided by three or four made, or missed, plays every week.
It can be legitimately argued we were one or two plays away from beating LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia. Yesterday, we made enough plays to win. End of story.
Coach O said when he was first hired nearly two years ago the Rebels would win "when we are good enough to win." They were good enough to win yesterday.
The change toward getting good enough to win started immediately after the lackadaisical loss to Wake Forest in Oxford. Yep, the Demon Deacons are real good, as they have shown throughout the year, but we, frankly, were awful that day. The effort was weak, as Orgeron and everyone associated with the team acknowledged. It was there for all to see.
Coach O was displeased, to say the least. Things would change, he declared. He instituted tougher practices, he called on the seniors to lead, he changed some players around, he wouldn't allow talk of injuries being a factor and he set his eyes on one goal – getting everything humanly possible out of the Rebels and teaching them how to win.
A "moral victory" followed against Georgia the following week in Oxford. (Teams with losing records are allowed one MV per year, I suppose.)
Then the Rebs got statistically dominated by Vandy in Oxford but they – here's that term again – found a way to win by forcing several Vandy turnovers when they needed them the most. Making plays.
The overtime heartbreak at Alabama set them back a week. After having used their allotment of "moral victories," that one hurt deeply. A letdown at Arkansas – which was a really strange game – was almost predictable.
The Rebels geared it up again and scared the pants off of Tommy Tuberville and the Auburn Tigers, but, again, they were one or two plays away from knocking off one of the elite teams of the SEC.
Northwestern State provided some salve to their wounds, but what was probably even more important was an open week after 10 straight games. Rest and healing were the order of the day. They got it, but went into Death Valley against the powerful LSU Tigers a 27 ½ point underdog.
The Rebel players took that lack of respect to heart and almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year, losing to the Tigers in OT. For 60 minutes, they were as good as one of the top teams in the country.
Here's where it gets a little dicey. While everyone involved could see the improvement, the game in Baton Rouge was harder to swallow than any of them. Could they come back after that morale-crushing loss to defeat MSU?
Coach O said there was never any doubt he'd get the team's best. He saw it in their eyes last Monday at the first practice and in the team meeting. He didn't fret the players being "up" for the game at all. He declared all week, without hesitation, his team would be ready to play.
Me? I predicted an easier win than what transpired. Based on conversations I had with coaches and players all week, I was calmer about this year's Egg Bowl than I had been in a long, long time.
Why? Because this group was due.
All year, they had paid the price. All year, they had come up a little short. But they never threw in the towel. The team chemistry, the senior leadership and the direction of the staff were constant. From the Wake Forest game on, nobody wavered, even at Fayetteville, believe it or not. All hands on deck, all hands swabbing, all hands battening down the hatches.
The game yesterday was not a masterpiece of football. It will not go down in the annals as a classic. At times, it was downright painful to watch.
But, in the end, the Rebels made one more glorious play than the Bulldogs did.
Like Coach O in his postgame press conference, I will not make too big a deal over beating a 3-9 MSU team to finish the season 4-8. As he said, the Rebels "fell short" this year.
But this was a "must win" for the Rebels and has major significance in a lot of ways. As he also said, you can't get where you want to go unless you go through Mississippi State first and work your way up the food chain.
Hopefully, this victory will be a springboard to bigger and better things. It leaves a good taste in the mouths of the players in terms of effort in the offseason. It gives recruits a reason to believe. It gives the coaches even more motivation knowing they are closing in on their objectives.
Winning is usually contagious. Learning how to win is the first step in that "addiction" process.
The Rebels learned what it feels like and tastes like yesterday. I'm already itching for Sept. 1 of 2007.
Kudos to the team and coaching staff. You deserved something good to come your way.
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