Good for Mississippi State. Good for Southern Miss. Good for football in the Magnolia State.
Saturday night in Starkville, State and USM will play football against one another for the first time in 24 years. It’s the first of a two-game series that makes sense, will make money and will raise a lot more interest in college football in this State than, say, State vs. UAB or Southern Miss vs. BYU.
The Bulldogs are heavy, heavy favorites over the Golden Eagles, who have won just one of their past 24 games, by far the worst span of football in history of the proud Southern Miss program.
Yet, State fans of a certain vintage – certainly those who remember seven straight USM victories in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – have to experience at least twinges of trepidation this week. In 1980 – the year State beat Alabama and the Bear 6-3 – the Bulldogs were trampled by Reggie Collier and USM 42-14. It was State’s homecoming.
State and Southern Miss have played 27 times. I’ve seen 25 of those. I wasn’t alive in 1935 or 1947, when the Bulldogs won 27-0 and 14-7, respectively.
I have seen all games since, including State’s 48-7 victory in 1964 when the Scott Field clock malfunctioned and the second quarter lasted more than hour. Surely, any USM defender still alive has nightmares of Hoyle Granger plowing up the middle or Marcus Rhoden and Dan Bland racing for yardage in the open field.
Most games since have been much more competitive, as has been the series, which USM leads 14-12, counting two State forfeits in 1975 and 1976.
The best games
The best games of all?
I’ll give you my top five most memorable:
• Nov. 7, 1981, USM 7, State 6. Both teams were nationally ranked and featured much future NFL talent when they played before more than 64,000 on a gorgeous day at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The late, great Orley Hood referred to this one as the “limp off” game because players from both teams limped off the field on seemingly every play. State corralled Collier for the most part, but USM’s defense, led by the unblockable Jerold Baylis, was equally salty. A fumbled punt proved the difference.
• Sept. 9, 1989, State 26, USM 23. USM’s Roberts Stadium was packed. Heavily favored USM, led by Brett Favre, was ranked No. 18 and coming off a huge victory over Florida State. The Eagles had won three straight over State and 10 of the last 12. But the Bulldogs got this one and State fans stayed, cheered and clanged their cowbells for a good 30 minutes after the game ended.
• Oct. 7, 1978, USM 22, State 17. State led this one at Hattiesburg 17-0 before Bobby Collins inserted a walk-on running back named Sammy Winder into the game. It was Winder’s coming out party. He ran through tackler after tackler, leading USM to 22 straight points and the victory.
• Oct. 24, 1970, State 51, USM 15. Competitive, no. Memorable, yes. USM had beaten No. 4 Ole Miss 30-14 the week before. On Thursday night, two nights before the State game, USM had an on-campus celebration of the Ole Miss victory when they perhaps should have been thinking about what was to happen in less than 48 hours in Starkville. In retrospect, the outcome was utterly predictable. State wrapped it up in maroon and white from start to finish.
• Sept. 20, 1986: USM 28, State 24. State led 24-21 with under four minutes remaining when USM got the ball at its own 2-yard-line. The late Keith Daniels, USM’s offensive coordinator at the time, called all 18 plays of the drive that ended with Shelton Gandy scoring the winning touchdown. Afterward, an emotionally drained Daniels sobbed as he talked about the winning drive, which really was one of the best these eyes ever witnessed.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.