By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
This week, the 15th longest rivalry in FBS history will be renewed for the 109th time in Oxford, Miss. Dating back to 1901, the Egg Bowl represents the biggest sporting event in the Magnolia State each year, and this one is no different.
The Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) come into this year’s renewal having won three straight over their rivals from the north, their longest win streak in the series in nearly 70 years. The Rebels (5-6, 2-5) have revenge on their minds following a 31-3 defeat in Starkville last season and first-year head coach Hugh Freeze has his team on the verge of bowl eligibility, giving this game even more meaning for Ole Miss.
Dan Mullen has MSU in the midst of a historical season, as a win on Saturday would make the 2012 Bulldogs the sixth team in the school’s 112-year football history to win nine games in a season. Two more wins this year and the Bulldogs would match the school record for wins in a three-year stretch with 26 since Mullen’s arrival.
MSU is fresh off a blowout victory over Arkansas last week, while the Rebs are looking to get a bad taste out of their mouths following two consecutive losses by a combined seven points against Vanderbilt and LSU. In fact, all six of Mississippi’s defeats have come at the hands of opponents that are currently ranked or receiving votes in the top 25 polls.
The name of the game this weekend at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium could be turnovers. Protecting the football usually plays a critical role in the game of football, but it will be especially pivotal between these two squads. Mississippi State is the SEC’s best team in terms of turnover differential, having forced 16 more than they have committed through 11 games. On the other hand, Ole Miss has been one of the best in the conference at creating turnovers but it has struggled mightily with ball security.
The Ole Miss defense had three takeaways last week against LSU, but four turnovers from the offense ultimately doomed the Rebels in a heartbreaking 41-35 loss that was sealed on a short scoring run for the Tigers with only 15 seconds remaining. Against a team like MSU, the Rebs will need to take better care of the ball in order to win.
Outside of his three interceptions, quarterback Bo Wallace had a big day against the vaunted LSU defense in Death Valley. The sophomore racked up 364 yards of total offense and scored four total touchdowns, two on the ground and two in the form of touchdown passes to Donte Moncrief. Moncrief was a terror for the Tigers defense, snagging seven passes for 161 yards and the two scores and providing several explosive plays in the process.
Wallace and Moncrief will have their work cut out for them against a talented, experienced secondary from MSU, while running back Jeff Scott will have an opportunity to break out of a recent slump on the ground. Scott has been a non-factor for several weeks (39 yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry in his last four games), but the Bulldogs have allowed 4.3 yards per carry on the season and find themselves sitting toward the bottom of the league in that regard.
Thorpe Award finalist Jonathan Banks has been a shutdown corner for the Bulldogs, defending 10 passes and intercepting four on the season. His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but the biggest testament to his game is the fact that opposing teams avoid throwing in his direction most of the time. Banks isn’t alone on the back line, either, combining with Darius Slay, Corey Broomfield and Nick Whitley for 121 career starts. Together the group has 40 career interceptions and eight return touchdowns, and they’ll be waiting to capitalize if Wallace makes any errant throws this week.
The Mississippi State offense is led by quarterback Tyler Russell, who has made very few mistakes in 2012. Russell has thrown 21 touchdown passes compared to only four interceptions (only Alabama’s AJ McCarron has fewer picks), and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his four-touchdown performance against Arkansas last week.
Russell’s decision making has been exceptional, thanks in part to the fact that his offensive line has kept him upright. The Bulldogs o-line has only allowed 13 sacks this season and MSU is one of only three SEC teams – Alabama and LSU being the others – to have three backs averaging over five yards per carry on the ground. The big fellas up front have opened holes for the SEC’s third-leading rusher in terms of yards per game, LaDarius Perkins, who is averaging 89 yards per game and 5.3 yards per tote for the season. Perkins went for over five yards per carry again last week while catching two TDs in his return from a leg injury.
On the outside, Chad Bumphis has distinguished himself as one of the best receivers to ever come through Starkville, sitting 12 catches shy of the school reception record. Bumphis has taken over as MSU’s all-time receiving touchdown leader this year with an SEC-best 10 scores, and he will be a focal point for an Ole Miss defense that has been one of the worst in the conference.
The Rebel defense has not been stout by any means, allowing nearly 400 yards per game so far this year. This young, athletic unit has performed in “feast or famine” fashion this season, giving up lots of yards and 28.9 points per game but still excelling in forcing mistakes and making big plays.
The Rebs are second in the SEC with 7.6 tackles for loss per game and 2.8 sacks per game, posing a challenge for MSU’s offensive front. Ole Miss has forced 24 turnovers (12 interceptions, 12 fumbles) this year, many of which have come at pivotal times to erase previous mistakes. While the Bulldogs will probably have success moving the ball against the Rebels, the defense’s ability to hit big plays – plays that could ignite the Red and Blue crowd – will make it dangerous on Saturday night.
Emotions will be high on Saturday night for the 22 Rebels playing in what could be their last collegiate game against a rival who they have never defeated. The Bulldogs will look to close the gap in the all-time series, which Ole Miss leads 60-42-6, and take advantage of their final opportunity to improve their bowl stock.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern from Oxford.