In 1990, the big story of the year in Mississippi football was the gunslingin’ senior quarterback down in Hattiesburg at Southern Mississippi. His name was Brett Favre and he was the reason the Golden Eagles were on the national radar, while his summer wreck and subsequent injuries had made quite a few headlines, as well.
Escaping near death, Favre stayed alive for his final campaign at USM, including what turned out to be the last time for decades Mississippi State and Southern would face each other on the gridiron.
September 22, 1990.
On the other sideline, MSU had a young hardly-used quarterback by the name of Sleepy Robinson, a dual-threat option for the otherwise pro-style offense run by head coach and former State QB Rockey Felker.
That day on Scott Field was the first time Robinson saw some real action, but despite his integral role in the outcome of the game, it wasn’t his own play that stands out in his memory.
“The biggest thing I remember,” Robinson said, now a recruiting specialist at MSU, “was that strong arm Brett Favre had, like, ‘Wow this guy has a cannon!’”
However, none of the involved quarterbacks had a particularly strong game, as those involved recall. It was a defensive battle where Favre barely completed 45% of his passes, only totaling 124 yards, and State quarterback Tony Shell threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for USM’s only touchdown.
Now back on the staff at MSU as the Director of Player Personnel, Felker remembers both sides considering it their biggest game of the season that year, leading to a bit of a violent affair.
“We haven’t played Southern since then,” Felker said, “but people who remember that game, everyone would say it was a physical battle and one of the toughest, hard-hitting games they’d seen in a long time.”
The two sides traded field goals in the first quarter, the most offense they could muster. Neither team had any success moving the ball.
Then what seemed like a death blow came in the second quarter when Shell threw an interception around midfield and Eagle defensive back Kerry Valrie returned it 47 yards for the score and the lead.
Finally, as the first half was nearly done, an offensive breakthrough came.
“36 S was the play. Fullback in the flat, tight end dragging backside. I remember that,” Robinson now recalls. “I think I may have played six plays that whole game.”
But the Bulldogs were on the one-yard line and Felker had called his number and sent in the young dual-threat quarterback.
“One of the worst mistakes I ever made was not getting Sleepy more involved in the offense,” Felker conceded. “He could run, he could throw, he knew how to get the ball in the endzone. He was very valuable in those kind of situations, goal-line and short-yardage.”
Rockey Felker in his playing days
The Eagles saw the change-of-pace quarterback come in and assumed it would be a run. Turns out, it was a pass.
Robinson completed a one-yard throw to Treddis Anderson, tying the game and scoring the first and only offensive touchdown of the day.
“Coach [Dan] Mullen talks about that now,” Robinson said. “You’ve gotta be ready when your number is called. You go to practice and prepare. When it’s time, it’s time.”
For the remaining bit of the first half, offenses were stymied. The third quarter proved no better as neither Favre nor Shell were able to make any real progress. Same story for the majority of the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t until the game started to wind down, when it was then or never, that one side finally made a push.
Getting his first significant playing time in nearly two years, senior running back David Fair came in and led the charge for MSU. The Bulldogs drove methodically down the field. It looked as if they might once more sniff paydirt and take a lead they were sure to maintain.
Until the drive stalled just outside the redzone. Bent but not broken, USM’s defense had slowed the attack.
With three minutes left in the game, in front of the biggest non-conference crowd at the time in MSU history, Joel Logan stepped onto the field for a 41-yard field goal and what was surely State’s last chance.
Just the year before, Logan had sealed victory with a game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining to beat Favre and his Eagles in Hattiesburg.
Could he do it again in front of the home crowd?
The snap came, the hold was set and Logan unloaded on the football as 40,115 watched it sail off his foot and into the air.
It was good, right through the middle of the uprights.
MSU took a 13-10 lead and ultimately won the game.
It’s funny what all went into that game off the field. Beyond the fame of Favre and his summertime accident, of course.
Robinson himself had been heavily recruited by USM just a few years before when Favre was a relative unknown. The Eagles wanted Robinson as their QB of the future, and he planned on granting them their wish.
In fact, he and his best friend/high school running back had intentions of going to college together in Hattiesburg to keep the duo alive.
But something in the air, let’s say, told Robinson it was the wrong choice.
“I went down there and caught one of the worst colds of my life, so I decided I wouldn’t go to Southern,” he said with a smile.
How different things would’ve been in the state for football. “Sleepy” went on to be a star at MSU in Jackie Sherrill’s opening years. Favre’s story needs no telling.
But what if Robinson had taken up the offer to spend his college career in Hattiesburg?
“I wouldn’t have beat out Brett Favre, now,” he said with a big laugh. “No. I never actually wanted to be a quarterback a day in my life. I wanted be a receiver or free safety. I thought I was better than Jerry Rice.”
Beyond Robinson’s near-decision, Felker had incidentally created some tensions of his own. Four of his assistants on staff had come to Starkville from USM before the 1989 season. Their feelings toward Southern were strong, and the coaches and players left in Hattiesburg felt similarly.
“It was the most important game of the year to our coaches, and they were gonna make sure that our football team was ready to play,” Felker said. “That was one thing that really changed our attitude and viewpoint of that game. At one point, it was tough to get up for Southern. They weren’t in the SEC and it was the biggest game of the year for them. It wasn’t for us. In ‘89, that changed. We knew how we had to approach that game if we were going to win it.”
He’s right, though. For most of the ‘80s, Southern had been the ruler of the rivalry, beating the Bulldogs more than a few times.
“Over those 10 years from 80-90, Southern had embarrassed us,” Felker said. “It was a game that we circled on the schedule. A game we knew we had to win. We approached it like any in-state rivalry game.”
Things have of course changed since then. Just as soon as the rivalry had escalated, it was killed off.
Now, 24 years later, the two will finally meet again for the 2014 season-opener in Starkville. Circumstances are different for both squads and coaching staffs, and the “rivalry” is certainly far less passionate and heated.
But, coaches will say, any time you play someone in the same state, there’s an extra element to the matchup.
“Our players know their players, they know us. They grew up together,” Felker explained. “The fact it is, in-state puts a different twist on it. I expect this year’s game will be very similar.”
In different roles and at much different ages, Felker and Robinson will be together on the sideline again for MSU-USM. They’re hoping for their second win in a row together, however long it may have taken.