Rice-Mississippi St. Preview

After winning its first outright conference title in 56 years,

Rice will try for an unprecedented feat in what could prove to be

an unfriendly Liberty Bowl.

The Owls will seek a school-best 11th win when they face a

Mississippi State team that will likely have a sizable and noisy

crowd on its side on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.

Rice (10-3) heads into its first Liberty Bowl having won nine of

10 after capturing the Conference USA title with a 41-24 victory

over Marshall on Dec. 7. The Owls have earned 10 victories twice in

their history, with one of those seasons taking place under current

coach David Bailiff in 2008.

“To have an opportunity to go win an 11th ballgame for the first

time in the history of the school and to win a Liberty Bowl

championship, that’s everything that was on the goals they set,”

Bailiff said. “All our goals are still intact. It’s been an amazing

run for us.”

Rice, though, could face a significant disadvantage as it tries

for that history-making victory. That’s because Mississippi State

will be playing around 165 miles away from its campus, with their

fans bringing their innumerable cowbells – noisemakers that drew a

$25,000 fine from the SEC earlier this month but are allowed in

Memphis.

The Bulldogs brought in virtually all of a record crowd of

63,816 in their most recent appearance in the Liberty Bowl, a 10-3

win over Central Florida on in 2007.

“I think we have a good plan for the cowbells,” Bailiff said.

“We’ve got the CDs of the cowbells going off (at practice). We’re

looking forward to it.”

Mississippi State barely made it to any bowl after losing six of

its first 10 games, but the Bulldogs (6-6) won their final two,

including a 17-10 overtime victory over rival Mississippi on Nov.

28. Their reward was a school-record fourth consecutive postseason

appearance.

“Our seniors have done something no one here has ever done, and

that’s play in four straight bowls. That’s special,” coach Dan

Mullen said.

An improving defense aided Mississippi State down the stretch.

The Bulldogs allowed an average of 15.7 points in their final three

games after giving up 37.2 per contest in their previous five.

They held Sugar Bowl-bound and formerly top-ranked Alabama to

its lowest point total of the season in a 20-7 loss Nov. 16. They

also forced a combined 14 turnovers in their last four games after

registering 10 in their first eight.

Nickoe Whitley had two interceptions in those four games and

finished tied for second in the SEC with five. Taveze Calhoun had

all three of his in the final three contests.

Mississippi State had a program-best five-game bowl win streak

snapped with a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl on Jan.

1.

Avoiding a second bowl defeat in the calendar year could be

difficult if it can’t slow Rice’s rushing attack. The Owls rank

16th nationally with 240.2 yards per game on the ground. With 1,252

yards, senior Charles Ross is the program’s first player to top

1,000 in seven seasons and is its most prolific rusher since Trevor

Cobb had 1,386 in 1992.

Mississippi State ranked 46th nationally in rushing defense

(151.1 ypg allowed).

The Bulldogs’ leading rusher is sophomore quarterback Dak

Prescott. He was 11th in the SEC with 751 yards and finished just

ahead of former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for second

among the conference’s quarterbacks.

By contrast, he was eighth in passing yards per game among

qualifying players with 165.7, and he was dealing with a nerve

injury in his non-throwing arm late in the season. Prescott was

forced to sit out two games before returning for the win over Ole

Miss.

If for some reason Prescott can’t go, freshman Damian Williams

is likely the team’s only other option. Tyler Russell’s career is

over for the Bulldogs after he needed surgery to fix a torn labrum

in his right shoulder.

Mississippi State won 28-14 in its only other meeting with Rice

on Oct. 11, 1975, in Houston, but later forfeited that victory

because of NCAA violations.

Rice is making its first back-to-back postseason appearances

since 1960-61 after beating Air Force 33-14 in last year’s Armed

Forces Bowl.

Mississippi State is 2-1 in its three trips to Liberty Bowls,

the first of which took place in the game’s original home of

Philadelphia in 1963. The lone loss came against Air Force in

1991.