Pride, big bowl on the line in Starkville

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ole Miss comes into today’s Egg Bowl with Mississippi State with a lot of momentum and a lot to play for.

Egg Bowl 2009

Ole Miss at Miss. State

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Today, 11:21 a.m.


Radio: 105.5 FM (Mississippi State radio network) and1490 AM (Ole Miss radio network)

The 20th-ranked Rebels (8-3, 4-3 SEC) can lock up a spot in the Capital One Bowl against either Iowa or Penn State on New Year’s Day with a win against the archrival Bulldogs (4-7, 2-5). Mississippi State, meanwhile, looks to defend its home turf, something it has done in the last two meetings with the Rebels. The last time Ole Miss won in Starkville was in 2003 behind quarterback Eli Manning. State won in 2007, 17-14, on Derrick Pegues’ punt return and a last second field goal to earn a spot in the Liberty Bowl.

First-year Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said a win today would go a long way toward jump-starting the offseason program.

“This is the rivalry game for this school and we want to emphasize that. That is what makes this game exciting and our focus is more to that than what happened last year,” Mullen said.

Ole Miss destroyed State last year in Oxford, 45-0, as the defense sacked three State quarterbacks a combined 11 times.

Ole Miss comes in this year with about the same momentum as last year’s six-game closing stretch that culminated in a 47-34 win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. The Rebels have won three straight SEC games, beating Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU to get to 8-3 and move into sole possession of third place in the SEC behind BCS-bound Alabama and Florida.

Of course, Ole Miss will have to guard against a hangover from last week’s shocking finish. The Rebels allowed a touchdown, a successful onsides kick and a Hail Mary pass before LSU ran out of time at the 5-yard line.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said the nature of the Egg Bowl rivalry is enough to get his team’s focus.

“Mississippi State and the Egg Bowl is very big. Our guys have been talking about it since Saturday night and that is unusual. I have had several guys come up to me this week and say ‘It’s Egg Bowl Week,’” Nutt said.

Today’s contest could come down to a battle between the two players who will also battle for Monday night’s Conerly Trophy given to Mississippi’s best college player.

Ole Miss has running back/wide receiver hybrid Dexter McCluster. State has one of the league’s best tailbacks in Anthony Dixon.

“Everyone who sees film sees No. 24,” Nutt said of Dixon. “You have to stop No. 24 and I think it’s important to know where he is. He is the difference maker for them.”

Dixon has rushed for 1,258 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games. He was suspended for the season opener against Jackson State because of disciplinary reasons.

State has had to rely on Dixon’s prowess as a power back because its passing game has been anemic at best. Tyson Lee and Chris Relf have combined for 16 interceptions and just over 150 yards per game.

Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead has had his bad moments as well with 14 picks, but he has played much better during the Rebels’ streak in large part because the Rebels have decided that McCluster is their primary weapon.

Against Tennessee, McCluster ran for a school record 282 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-17 romp. He had another 149 yards rushing and threw a key half-back TD pass to Shay Hodge in the fourth quarter against LSU. For the season, McCluster has 903 yards rushing and 412 receiving.

“Dexter makes everyone better and our linemen don’t have to hold their blocks as long. The threat of the run, when the linebackers and safeties have to keep an eye on No. 22, it just helps everything. He’s a quarterback’s best friend. What an awesome ally and that is what your quarterback needs,” Nutt said.

Contact Jeff Byrd at