Rebels aim for Cotton Bowl bid

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ole Miss fans are on cloud nine thanks to the turnaround job done by Houston Nutt and for the first time in his 17-year head coaching career, Nutt will face an in-state rival.


11:30 a.m. WJTV-12 Jackson – Miss. State at Ole Miss

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Mississippi State comes to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Friday for the annual renewal of the Egg Bowl. It will mark Nutt’s first game in the series that dates back to 1901. Ole Miss holds a 59-39-6 advantage but the Bulldogs have won two of the last three, albeit both coming on their own Scott Field turf.

For the Rebels (7-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference), a win over Mississippi State (4-7, 2-5) would mean more than just an Egg Bowl win, but a trip back to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Thanks to last week’s 31-13 rout of LSU in Baton Rouge, Ole Miss has moved ahead of the Tigers in the SEC’s bowl tie-ins and now ranks fourth behind Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The Rebels also earned a spot at No. 25 in this week’s Associated Press poll, their best since the Eli Manning-led team in 2003, which won the Cotton Bowl over Oklahoma State.

Nutt, however at his weekly press conference, tried to downplay the bowl talk and instead was looking forward to the rivalry game.

“I have never had an in-state rivalry as a coach, but I can feel what it means. When you are in the same boundaries, everything is bigger. This will be talked about for a full year from Friday. It’s just big, and I haven’t had any experience with it, but I know how big it will be and tough of a game it will be,” Nutt said.

Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom knows many of the Bulldog faithful are not happy about the step backward his program has taken this season after going 8-5 and winning the Liberty Bowl last December. Last year’s 17-14 comeback win over Ole Miss at Starkville put State in the Liberty Bowl.

“We are going into our last game of the year against our in-state rivals. It will be the final game for our 24 seniors and I am going to miss those guys. Even though the season might not have quite turned out like they and many of us wished it had, I am very proud of those guys and I feel they have represented this university well and shown a lot of character through the course of their careers here at Mississippi State. We want to play as good as we can play this week, and I still do not think we have reached our potential,” Croom said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

Nutt said the Rebels will have to find a way to keep State’s standout running back Anthony Dixon from controlling the game. Dixon rushed for 179 yards in the Bulldogs’ 24-14 win over Arkansas last week and was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

“Anthony Dixon, who I have a lot of respect for, has always been a very, very tough runner,” Nutt said. “I’ve seen him take a 60 or 70-yard run. He is faster than you think. You have got to take good angles. Once again the defensive line has a job to do and that’s where it all starts, especially going against a tailback like that. There is no secret to what they are going to do. They are going to put in the ball in his hands and we know that.”

Croom feels it has been the Rebels’ interior line play on both sides of the ball where Nutt has made the most difference.

“The University of Mississippi is a good football team that has improved through the course of the season. Their strengths are in their lines. They are also steady in their quarterback, with speed at the wide receiver, a tough defense and they are a very experienced football team,” Croom said.

Ole Miss is led by quarterback Jevan Snead. Through 11 games, he has completed 152 of 279 passes for 2,257 yards and 22 touchdowns. Three receivers in Shay Hodge, Mike Wallace and Dexter McCluster have combined for 102 catches and nearly 1,700 yards. Former Meridian High running back Cordera Eason has come on to pace the ground game. He has rushed for 613 yards.

Much of the Rebels’ turnaround has been the play of defensive end Greg Hardy, who has 5.5 sacks in just six games. Defensive tackle and Conerly Trophy candidate Peria Jerry has 13 tackles for loss.


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