By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Every year, Mississippi State must educate its new blood about the magnitude of its rivalry with Ole Miss, which will be renewed on the gridiron Saturday in Oxford.
For junior college transfer Vick Ballard, the No. 25 Bulldogs’ leading rusher, the message has gotten across loud and clear.
“It’s a must-win game,” he said. “You can lose every game except the Ole Miss game.”
Even being 7-4 and in line for a bowl bid isn’t enough to satisfy MSU. It wants to keep building on what it’s done so far, and the success of 2010 can be tied back to how 2009 ended – with a 41-27 Egg Bowl victory.
Even though he didn’t arrive until January, first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has witnessed the impact that one game had on the program and its fan base.
“By getting here in January, you could see the momentum and what it meant to people in this state,” Diaz said. “Me being my first year of living in this state, and the way that I know our program rode (the win) throughout the entire offseason, sort of starting into this season, it’s quite remarkable just from that one game. It’s fairly obvious in terms of what type of an impact it can have.”
Second-year head coach Dan Mullen has gained a broader appreciation of the rivalry. He arrived in Starkville in December 2008 talking about beating “the school up north,” as he calls Ole Miss, and now he knows just how important that is.
“Now I know the enormity of it for everybody, not just our football program, our university or our fan base, but for the entire state,” he said.
After last year’s win, Mullen grabbed a microphone on the field and yelled to the crowd, “There is one program in this state that is definitely on the rise!” That was a shot at Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who earlier in the week had taken a veiled jab at MSU for what he thought were negative recruiting tactics.
“Obviously since that game to now, we are the program that’s on the rise,” Mullen said. “And we’re planning to keep it that way.”
– State’s defense has given up a lot of big scoring plays the last two weeks in losses to Alabama and Arkansas. Mullen has put the blame for those lapses on the coaching staff.
“When I say I put that on the coaches, a little lazy attitude maybe on our coaching staff, and that starts with me of not paying attention to all the little details when we get out there,” he said. “As the season goes on, you’re worrying about the scheme, you’re worrying about the big picture, you get into a routine, and sometimes you don’t focus on the process as much as the outcome, and you’re looking at big-picture things instead of little things.”
Mullen vowed to put more emphasis on the details this week. Diaz has likened it to his being a teacher, only his “students” are being questioned by the other team.
“What got us beat last Saturday, was we got the answers wrong before the play even began,” Diaz said. “Once the play started, we had already lost, we were already defeated before the play began.… They can ask you 61 questions, and you can get 59 of them right, but the two you get wrong make it hard to win.”
Said safety Charles Mitchell, “By the way we look on film on those, it’s not the whole game, it’s three plays of the game that guys just got too relaxed on, not playing full speed all the way.”
– The Conerly Trophy, which goes annually to the top college football player in the state, will be awarded Nov. 30. MSU has two strong candidates in senior left tackle Derek Sherrod and senior middle linebacker Chris White.
Sherrod has been one of the best linemen in the league the past three years, and especially so this season. White leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 96, and his 8.7 tackles per game are tied for fourth in the SEC.
“It’d be a toss-up between (Sherrod) and Chris White,” Mullen said. “The hard thing is that both of them’s had such great years, both had outstanding seasons.”
– Mullen doesn’t expect any of his banged-up players – including receivers Chad Bumphis (ankle) and Chris Smith (foot) – to miss the game. … Bumphis has a team-leading 590 yards and can become MSU’s first 600-yard receiver since Tony Burks in 2006 (850 yards). … MSU enters the Egg Bowl as a ranked team for the first time since 2000, when as the No. 23 team it lost to the unranked Rebels in Oxford, 45-30. … State is third in the SEC in rushing (216.3 yards per game); Ole Miss is second (220.5 ypg).
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.