By MATTHEW STEVENS
Apparently all Pernell McPhee needed was one sack to get back to his old, smack-talking self.
Last week, Mississippi State’s most talented pass rusher finally got in the stat sheet by bringing Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett to the ground. It was McPhee’s first sack since getting a half sack on Tim Tebow last year when the Gators came into Starkville and won 29-19.
In the final regular season game for the Bulldogs (7-4, 3-4 in Southeastern Conference), McPhee will wear the jersey number 36 in honor of Nick Bell, a teammate he lined up on the opposite end of the defensive line that passed away weeks ago.
“We had decided before Alabama week. Coach (Chris) Wilson asked Nick’s mom (Linda Bell) if one of defensive lineman does which one would you rather wear it?” McPhee said. “She said number 90.”
McPhee always reveled in his four years of competitive football that he’s never lost a rivalry game being winning one high school game in Florida, winning twice at Itawamba Community College and last year’s 41-27 victory over Ole Miss in Starkville last year.
The 285-pound senior that has professional scouts intensely following his final two games of his college career has followed the path of his head coach by opening his mouth essentially guaranteeing a win in Oxford Saturday.
“To me, it’s an honor because in high school – played our rival, whooped them," McPhee said. "In Junior college, played the rival two teams (and) I beat them two times and I want to beat Ole Miss one more time. I never lost a rivalry game and I don’t plan on losing one,” McPhee said. “I’m 1-0 now, going on 2-0.”
McPhee currently has 7.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up at the line of scrimmage and forced fumble. He was the first player to come out of the locker room Saturday night after a double-overtime loss against Arkansas in his final game ever at Davis-Wade Stadium.
“I just told the guys to keep their heads up,” McPhee said. “None of us like to lose but we have to get past it and get focused on next week.”
In order to get ready for this game, McPhee has followed in the steps of his head coach creating a new nickname for the Ole Miss program that is a deep-rooted dig at their newly created mascot.
“(They’re) the Black Bears of TSUN,” McPhee said. “The School Up North Black Bears.”
State still trying to contain big plays
Mississippi State’s defense has allowed five scoring plays over 45 yards in its back-to-back losses to Alabama and Arkansas.
However, if you listen to Bulldogs defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, what concerns him the most is the defense has had two distinctly different problems in those two contests.
The issue in Tuscaloosa was the difficulty in tackling the Crimson Tide stars in Mark Ingram and Julio Jones on their long touchdown breakaways.
“Tackling issues are frustrating but that’s at least a two-person issue – the guy that’s tackling and the guy we’re trying to tackle,” Diaz said. “The issue against Arkansas was assignments and it didn’t matter who we played, we’d have left that guy open.”
The Bulldogs have given up 68 points over the past two games. Diaz said his players were out of position too often against Arkansas, and compared finding the correct defensive alignment to when his student-athletes fail a test because they weren’t properly prepared.
"We got the answers wrong before the play even began," Diaz said. "Once the play started, we had already lost. You have to give yourself a chance. They can ask you 61 questions and you can get 59 right, but even if you just miss two, it makes it really difficult to win."
Ole Miss has 58 offensive plays that went for over 20 yards in 11 games this season with Rebels quarterback Jeremiah Masoli accounting for 35 of them.
Rebels head coach Houston Nutt also has a tendency for using trick plays like the halfback pass to Masoli that resulted in positive yards last week at LSU.
In a emotionally-charged Egg Bowl matchup, Diaz suggests that the more disciplined football team will be extra important Saturday night.
“(Masoli) the wild card because you’re not going to trick him, not going to fool him,” Diaz said. “Rivalry games are going to be filled with emotions so it puts more of an emphasis on execution. Sometimes the passion can surpass that.”
Chick-fil-A Bowl scouting State again
The Chick-fil-A Bowl officials have certainly done a lot of flirting with the Mississippi State program and it could result eventually in a bowl invitation.
A representative for the bowl game, formally called the Peach Bowl, have watched MSU in person in three of the last four weeks and will be present for the 2010 Egg Bowl matchup in Oxford Saturday night.
“The Bulldogs are definitely still in our mix, but they need to win this week in the Egg Bowl,” Chick-fil-A Bowl chairman Leeman Bennett wrote on his weekly blog post on the bowl game website. “That would get them to 8-4 (4-4) with a top-25 ranking which may just be enough to get them an invitation to Atlanta.”
The Chick-fil-A, Capital One and Liberty Bowl committee representatives were on hand Saturday night to watch Arkansas pull out a 38-31 double-overtime victory over MSU.
Of the trio of bowl committees, the Chick-fil-A Bowl has been to the most Bulldogs home games at Davis Wade Stadium during the 2010 season and Saturday sent representative Chad Richardson to Starkville.
“It’s a great, loyal fan base and by the sound you hear out there (cowbells) you can tell everybody is excited about the wonderful season State is having,” Richardson said.
MSU officials expressed excitement about bringing State back to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the first time since 1999 when the Bulldogs defeated Clemson.
“We are technically the marketing and selection committee so part of my job is just to be out here meeting folks and sort of spreading the word about our game and about Chick-fil-A,” Richardson said.
The Liberty Bowl reps went down to hear Mississippi State Dan Mullen’s post-game comments and to chat with the Bulldogs second-year head coach after the disappointing loss.
"All of that, to me, this week is irrelevant," the Mississippi State coach said Sunday. "We'll worry about a bowl game and what bowl game at a much later date."