Bulldogs wary of dangerous Ole Miss

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 23, 2017

STARKVILLE (AP) — Ole Miss’ football season hasn’t gone as planned and the Rebels will enter Thursday’s Egg Bowl as at least two-touchdown underdogs.

Even so, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen knows this is no time to get overconfident.

“When you play rivalry games, records, last year’s game, what happened the year before or two years before, none of that really holds a lot of weight for this one,” Mullen said.

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Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference, CFP No. 14) will be trying to win its second straight Egg Bowl when it hosts Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) on Thanksgiving night. The 16th-ranked Bulldogs have plenty of momentum — winning five of their past six games — and will enjoy a raucous home crowd on senior night.

But some of the biggest upsets in the series have come in the past decade.

In 2009, Mullen’s first Mississippi State team had a 4-7 record heading into the Egg Bowl, but won 41-27 over a 20th-ranked Ole Miss team that was 8-3.

In 2014, Ole Miss returned the favor. Mississippi State was ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff, but No. 18 Ole Miss won 31-17.

Over the past three decades each team has won the Egg Bowl 15 times. Neither has won more than three in a row during that span. Mississippi State won 55-20 last year in Oxford.

“Once you step on campus here, it’s a big rivalry. It’s a nasty game. We don’t even like to use the name of their school,” MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. “So you can kind of tell from the jump that we don’t like each other. But I don’t think it takes very much for him to understand that it’s a rivalry game.”

Fitzgerald ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing yardage and has been a big reason why the Bulldogs have been able to once again be a contender in the league. He said MSU has, in part, the Egg Bowl to thank for that.

The Georgia native took his official visit to Starkville for the 2013 Egg Bowl, when Mississippi State pulled out a 17-10 overtime victory.

The next day he got to hold the trophy before heading home and realized the special nature of the rivalry.

“We got to have the trophy with us that morning so I got to hold it. It was a really cool experience seeing how we fought and won it the night before,” Fitzgerald said. “I got to see the atmosphere the night before, too. So I understood the brevity of the situation and how good it was to have that trophy.”

Ole Miss coach interim head coach Matt Luke, who played in the Egg Bowl several times in the 1990s and grew up in an Ole Miss family, said it was special from the other side as well.

“I’m 41 so this is really Egg Bowl 41 for me,” Luke said. “I remember my brother (Tom), we played in Jackson. I remember being at that game and him running for a couple touchdowns. I think maybe it was the Clarion-Ledger the next day, the headline said, ‘The Gospel According to Luke.’ I just always thought that was really cool. It was a great memory for me. Then obviously playing and coaching in it, it is a great rivalry and it’s great for the whole state of Mississippi.”

Luke said if the Rebels want a happy memory of this Egg Bowl, they must find a way to contain Mississippi State’s running game. Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams combine for nearly 175 rushing yards per game.

Williams is sixth in the SEC with 944 rushing yards. Fitzgerald has 968.

“They do a great job of running the football,” Luke said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with, so we have our work cut out going there and stopping the run and forcing them to throw it.”

Ole Miss is built around the SEC’s leading passing offense. Backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu — who took over for the injured Shea Patterson in October — has managed to keep the Rebels rolling in most of his starts.

Ta’amu has completed 69.5 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,435 yards and nine touchdowns, with only three interceptions. He has also run for 266 yards and four touchdowns.

“He throws the ball, understands their offense, makes the reads but is also very dangerous,” Mullen said. “He can beat you, not just with quarterback runs, but the ones that are more dangerous are the extending of plays and scrambling.”