|Egg Bowl always an emotional affair|
Tensions are always high when Mississippi and Mississippi State collide on the gridiron, but this week's meeting seems even more intense than normal.
In fact, the athletic directors from both schools sent out a request to fans, hoping to prevent emotions from boiling over on Thursday for the Egg Bowl in Starkville, Miss.
"In the spirit of sportsmanship, we ask that fans from both schools honor this storied rivalry with civility and respect for each other," Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork and Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen wrote in a joint statement.
The Rebels are ineligible for a bowl game due to an NCAA investigation that led to the offseason departure of former coach Hugh Freeze. Coach Matt Luke took over and has overseen an up-and-down campaign for Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference).
"It's always been a big game for as long as I can remember," Luke said. "To the people of the state of Mississippi, this is bragging rights. It's a huge game, and it is every year, no matter the situation.
"This game is emotional for a lot of different reasons. But my job is to focus on these players and give them the best chance to win this game. I've said this before, I've been a part of teams that have had a better record, but I am really proud of what this team has been able to accomplish with all they've been through. We have one more opportunity to go play together. We're going to enjoy these four days together and we're going to enjoy Thursday night."
The 16th-ranked Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) are looking for their third nine-win season in the past four years under coach Dan Mullen. They are coming off a 28-21 comeback win over Arkansas and are now looking for their second straight win over Ole Miss.
"I don't want to belittle it ... it's still the biggest game of the year, but we've also elevated our program," Mullen said. "It's not a regular game. Everyone in our program embraces it, not just the coaches and players. It makes it fun."
Versatile junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs' offense. Fitzgerald threw two touchdowns and ran for another to help Mississippi State overcome an early 14-0 deficit against the Razorbacks.
On the season, Fitzgerald has completed 56.2 percent of his passes for 1,770 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 968 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Ole Miss is coming off a loss to Texas A&M. The Rebels couldn't hold onto a 24-21 halftime lead against the Aggies and fell to 31-24, snapping a two-game win streak.
Junior quarterback Jordan Ta'amu moved into the starting role in mid-October after Shea Patterson was lost to a season-ending injury. Ta'amu completed 19 of 34 passes for 189 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against the Aggies.
Mullen is wary of Ta'amu's athleticism.
"He throws the ball well, understands their offense, makes the reads but is also very dangerous and can beat you with not just quarterback runs," Mullen said. "The ones that are more dangerous are extending of plays and scrambling."
Not only are both teams dealing with a short week, but they also are trying to block out the swirling coaching rumors. Ole Miss has been rumored to be in the mix for Oregon coach Willie Taggart, Memphis coach Mike Norvell and South Florida coach Charlie Strong.
Mullen is considered a candidate for the opening at Florida, where he spent four seasons as the Gators' offensive coordinator.
Ole Miss also is dealing with several injuries. Right guard Alex Givens is out with a concussion, and backup running back D'Vaughn Pennamon is out with a dislocated knee. Receiver Van Jefferson is considered questionable with a dislocated elbow, and cornerback Jalen Julius remains in the concussion protocol.
Mississippi State beat Ole Miss 55-20 last season but has lost two of the last three meetings with the Rebels.
"Usually, I'm always making sure we have a great, exciting environment, and making sure and encouraging our fans to show up and create that home-field advantage for us," Mullen said. "I don't think I have to do that this week. I think they'll be pretty excited about this game. They usually are."