Bulldogs savor win, prepare for bowl game
In the yearlong war of words between Mississippi State's Dan Mullen and Mississippi's Houston Nutt, it was Mullen who tossed the first barbs and did the majority of the talking, tweaking the ''The School Up North'' every chance the opportunity arose.
Turns out his Bulldogs got the last word, too.
Mississippi State jumped to No. 22 in the AP Top 25 after beating Mississippi 31-23 on Saturday night in the Egg Bowl. It was the first time the Bulldogs have won in Oxford since 1998, and just the second time in 12 seasons that the road team has won in the series.
''It means everything to us,'' MSU linebacker K.J. Wright said. ''It's not our only goal, but it's our first goal.''
The Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) are the only team in the AP's Top 25 that has four losses, but for good reason. The defeats have come to Auburn, Arkansas, LSU and Alabama - teams that are ranked second, eighth, 11th and 17th, respectively.
Now that the annual Magnolia State duel has been settled, the Bulldogs can turn their attention to the postseason. They are bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 and only the second time this decade. Though bowl destinations haven't been set, the Chick-fil-A Bowl had representatives at the game, and a trip to Atlanta is one of the likely scenarios.
The SEC won't announce bowl pairings until after the BCS determines its participants following next weekend's games.
Just like most of MSU's wins this season, the Egg Bowl wasn't necessarily a thing of beauty. The Bulldogs had a few crucial turnovers, let Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli make some big plays and nearly coughed up a 31-9 fourth-quarter lead.
''I thought we made some critical errors and they took advantage of them,'' Mullen said. ''Give them credit, they played hard. In the end we made one more play when we needed to. We have some things that we need to clean up, but we are going to go home and celebrate this win.''
Though there were some critical errors, there was also a lot of positives on offense. The Bulldogs gained 498 yards, thanks to career days from junior quarterback Chris Relf and freshman running back LaDarius Perkins.
Relf completed 13 of 20 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and one interception - excellent numbers for a quarterback most known for his running ability. But from the outset, it was obvious Ole Miss was trying to stop MSU's running game at all costs. And that left some holes in the secondary.
And Relf made the Rebels pay.
''They walked eight guys up in the box,'' Mullen said. ''When we had opportunities in the first half to make plays, we did.''
Perkins, who has backed up starter Vick Ballard most of the season, became the star of the Egg Bowl. He caught three passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 98 yards and 13 carries.
Ballard added 43 rushing yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs pounded out 210 rushing yards.
''(Perkins) is a really explosive player,'' Mullen said. ''We are not loaded with playmakers. We have guys who make plays, but we are not loaded with playmakers and he is one of them. We needed him to step up and he had a huge game.''