MSU stops Ole Miss

Published 12:11 am Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sylvester Croom doesn’t often show emotion. After Mississippi State’s unlikely Egg Bowl comeback, the Bulldogs’ coach couldn’t contain himself.

Mississippi State scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, capped by Adam Carlson’s 48-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, to beat rival Mississippi 17-14 on Friday and probably lock up the school’s first bowl bid since 2000.

Croom grabbed a 10-foot flag emblazoned with the school logo following the Egg Bowl’s frenetic final seconds and jogged around the field, celebrating his first winning season as a head coach.

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“I thought all along this was going to be a great day for Mississippi State football, but I never thought it would come down to that,” Croom said.

The longest field goal of Carlson’s career finished a rally that tied the school record for largest fourth-quarter comeback. The 104th meeting in one of the nation’s oldest rivalries was among the most exciting.

The Rebels (3-9, 0-8) finished the season winless in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 1982 and gave the Bulldogs (7-5, 4-4) enough wins to distinguish themselves in the crowded league bowl scene, where 10 teams are eligible for the postseason.

Carlson’s kick was made all the more difficult because of a bloodied big toe on his kicking foot, injured earlier in the game when a teammate landed on his foot during a celebration.

“I knew it hurt,” Carlson said. “Then when I got back to the locker room and took my shoe off, my sock was soaking wet.”

Carlson missed a potential game-tying 51-yard field goal in the final seconds of last year’s Egg Bowl. The junior was forced to relive that kick every day in the spring when the team finished each practice with a 51-yard field goal attempt. He looked like he might lose his job at the beginning of the season after missing half of his 16 field-goal attempts in his first two seasons.

He finished 9-for-12 this year and erased a lot of bad memories with Friday’s dead-center winner.

“I am so happy for Adam because a year ago he left with his head down, but today he is a hero,” Croom said.

That was just one of several big plays for the Bulldogs, who put together precious few while falling behind 14-0 in the first three quarters.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for 117 yards, put Ole Miss up 7-0 with a 14-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Brent Schaeffer threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Shay Hodge on Ole Miss’ opening drive of the second half to put the Rebels up 14-0.

The Rebels had won four of five in the series and looked as if they had locked up the win after the SEC’s worst defense stifled Mississippi State for three quarters. The Bulldogs managed just 59 yards in the first half and came into the fourth quarter with 144. But Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Rebels’ 49 early in the fourth quarter.

The Bulldogs stuffed Green-Ellis for a 3-yard loss.

“If I had to do it all over again, I probably would not make the same call,” Orgeron said. “I understand that was a bad call and that it probably cost us the game. I understand that and I take the blame.”

The stand awakened the Bulldogs and Wes Carroll finally began to move his team on the ensuing drive, which started with 10:05 remaining. He entered the quarter 4-for-12 for 28 yards and had even been yanked for two series.

He hit four of his next five passes for 37 yards, however, capping the drive with a 4-yard scoring toss to Anthony Dixon, who had 101 yards receiving.

The Mississippi State defense held Ole Miss on its next two series, with the help of some dropped passes.

Derek Pegues then fielded Justin Sparks’ 33-yard punt at his 35 and sprinted straight ahead, making one move around midfield before tying the game 14-14 with 2:38 left.

“I seen they were going to squib kick it to me again and I scooted up 10 yards,” Pegues said. “I was able to see a seam and hit it. The only thing that was going through my mind was, ’Hit it as hard as you can and don’t let the punter tackle you.”’

After a final Ole Miss three-and-out, the Bulldogs took over at their 35 with 43 seconds left. Carroll went 3-of-4 for 34 yards and picked up a first down on a designed run.

Carlson’s kick capped quite a personal run for Croom, the SEC’s first black head coach.

He came into his fourth season with just nine wins and started with a 45-0 loss to LSU. But the Bulldogs rallied around him for wins at Auburn and Kentucky and an upset of Alabama, his alma mater, two weeks ago in Starkville.

Now the Bulldogs have a chance for an eighth win, likely in the Independence or Liberty bowls.

“We started this season saying we were treating this season like a journey and the most important thing in a journey is the people that go with you,” Croom said.