Rice chasing history, Miss. State in Liberty Bowl

Mississippi State and Rice both have plenty at stake Tuesday in

the Liberty Bowl.

Rice (10-3) has a chance to clinch the first 11-win season in

school history. Mississippi State (6-6) wants to produce its fourth

straight winning season.

”Our guys know how important this is, to go win this game,”

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ”We don’t play again now

until Aug. 30. You have eight full months until we get to play

again. … You want to have that positive feeling going into the

offseason.”

Rice’s Liberty Bowl berth caps a remarkable rise for a school

better known for its academic prowess. Rice now is returning to the

site where the program began its turnaround.

After a 14-10 loss to Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

last year dropped the Owls’ record to 1-5, cornerback Phillip

Gaines gave an emotional speech. Rice has won 16 of 20 games

since.

”Something had to be said,” Gaines said. ”We had to realize

that we can’t keep doing the same stuff every week and expect a

different result. I just challenged everybody to kind of man up and

take responsibility of our team. That’s what we did.”

The Owls beat Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship

game last month for their first outright league title of any sort

since winning the Southwest Conference crown in 1957. Rice has a

chance to win bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time

ever.

Mississippi State has staged its own resurgence.

Before this current string of winning seasons, Mississippi State

had finished below .500 eight times in a nine-year stretch. The

Bulldogs closed the regular season with overtime victories over

Arkansas and Ole Miss. They’re now trying to maintain that

momentum.

”It would be huge and give us a lot of motivation going into

next year, just to keep the winning streak going,” Mississippi

State cornerback Taveze Calhoun said.

Mississippi State has withstood a rash of injuries and a brutal

schedule. All of Mississippi State’s losses came against teams

currently in the Top 25: No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Auburn, No.

14 LSU, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 3

Alabama.

Rice also overcame adversity.

Rice exceeded four wins in just one of David Bailiff’s first

five seasons as coach. The seniors on Rice’s roster endured

consecutive 4-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Rice linebacker Michael

Kutzler recalls the program being ”kind of a house divided” his

first couple of seasons before the Owls developed team

chemistry.

Gaines’ teammates say his speech was the catalyst.

”I’ll never forget it,” Rice safety Paul Porras said. ”I wish

I had it on tape.”

Here are five things to watch when Mississippi State faces Rice

in the Liberty Bowl:

PRESCOTT’S MOMENT: After splitting time with Tyler Russell

during the regular season, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott will

have the job to himself Tuesday while Russell recovers from a torn

labrum. Prescott’s had his own health issues with a nerve injury in

his non-throwing arm, but he’s feeling better now. ”At this time

of year, when you’ve been playing for five straight months now,

he’s as 100 percent as you’re going to get,” Mullen said.

RICE ON THE RUN: Rice leads Conference USA and ranks 16th among

all Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 240.2 yards rushing per

game. Charles Ross has rushed for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Rice showed it could run against an SEC opponent by rushing for 306

yards in a season-opening 52-31 loss to Texas A&M.

MISSISSIPPI STATE’S TAKEAWAYS: Mississippi State has produced 13

takeaways in its last four games after forcing just one turnover in

the three games before that stretch. The Bulldogs will try to

continue its recent ball-hawking ways without injured cornerback

Nickoe Whitley, who has 15 career interceptions.

RICE KICKER’S RANGE: Rice has reason to feel confident if this

game comes down to a long field-goal attempt. Rice’s Chris Boswell

is 13 -of-22 in his career on field-goal attempts from at least 50

yards out. No other FBS kicker has more than five career field

goals of that length.

PARTISAN CROWD: When Mississippi State last played in this game

in 2007, a Liberty Bowl record crowd of 63,816 watched the Bulldogs

defeat UCF 10-3. Memphis is a three-hour drive from Mississippi

State’s Starkville campus. ”I expect it to feel like it’s

Starkville on Saturday night,” Mississippi State safety Kendrick

Market said.