Fun In The Sun: The MSU Fan’s Guide To Visiting Jacksonville And The Taxslayer Bowl

Days before Mississippi State beat Arkansas in Fayetteville back in November, the coldest and windiest game of the year for the Bulldogs, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said he was hoping for a win for many reasons, but chief among them was the dream of “a warmer bowl game.”

Three weeks later, he got his wish when it was announced his team is headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the Taxslayer Bowl on December 30. Sunshine, water, food and fun … and that’s just on gameday, thanks to the pool party inside the stadium. Not that Fitzgerald will be able to watch the game from the pool, of course, but anyone else can. More info on that here: https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/pool-party/

However, the game itself is only four hours, and if you’re making the trip all the way down to Florida over the holidays, you might as well make the most of it and enjoy some extra time in the area. Jacksonville is a fairly spread out city as it is, and when factoring in the nearby beaches, the swath of land in which vacationers will spend their time gets even larger. For that reason, I put together a quick travel guide based on my time there and recommendations from experts to help those who are looking for things to do, places to eat and ways to enjoy the warmth of the Sunshine State.

With the vast amount of hotels, AirBNB’s, beach rentals and the like available in the area, I didn’t list any lodging recommendations. But for those who would like it all taken care of in one neat, easy package, I’d recommend looking at the PrimeSport travel package MSU has available for the Taxslayer Bowl. Check that out here: https://www.primesport.com/d/mississippi-state-bulldogs?utm_source=hailstate.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=universities_mississippi_state_bowl_packages&utm_content=twitter_post_2_1232017

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 THINGS TO DO, DAYLIGHT AND NIGHTLIFE

Whether it’s an activity for the family, for adults or for the solo traveler, Jacksonville has plenty to offer. Beaches, of course, are a hot spot for travelers, and they have their own section later on. For a more detailed guide with extensive information, links and directions to museums, shows, etc., the Taxslayer Bowl has a helpful listing on its website https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/

The Jacksonville Zoo – What easier way to enjoy the good weather than to stroll through a zoo? From jaguars to giraffes to frogs and birds, the zoo has over 2,000 rare and exotic animals. http://www.jacksonvillezoo.org

Dave and Buster’s, Top Golf – You likely already know what these are, and now you know you can visit them both in Jacksonville. MSU’s football team will actually be making a visit of its own to Top Golf, and it won’t be a surprise if a player or two make their way to Dave and Buster’s. Arcade games, golfing, food – all good things, good for all ages.

Adventure Landing – A good choice for the family, Adventure Landing has locations in Jacksonville proper as well as Jacksonville Beach. They’ve got arcades, laser tag, go karts and mini golf. https://jacksonville-blanding.adventurelanding.com/things-to-do/

The Elbow – The Elbow is Jacksonville’s main entertainment district, where the burgeoning arts scene has flourished, and restaurants, shops and bars with live music line the streets. Some of the food recommendations below can be found here, but honestly, you can wander around and just poke your head inside whatever looks good to you and you’ll be just fine. More information here: https://theelbowjax.com

Jacksonville Landing – The home of MSU’s pep rally the night before the game – Friday, December 29 at 6:30 – The Landing is an easy and scenic one-stop choice for a full evening of entertainment. In what amounts to an outdoor mall and food court on the riverfront, the landing has a variety of shops and restaurants to suit most budgets. Pizza, tacos, steaks – whatever you like, you can find it here. http://www.jacksonvillelanding.com

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PLACES TO EAT

When I travel, this is always the most important and most enjoyable part of my trip. This list comes from a combination of personal experience, online research and recs from locals. For a lengthier list, the Taxslayer Bowl has a full section of its website dedicated to partner restaurants – https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/fan-zone/eat/

Maple Street Biscuit Company – Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, this is one of Jax’s most popular and highest-rated spots. Sweet or savory, standard or adventurous, the menu is much more than just biscuits. I’d recommend The Sticky Maple – “Flaky biscuit, all natural fried chicken breast, pecan wood smoked bacon all topped with Bissell Family Farm real maple syrup” – but that’s just me. Check out the menu and see what you like https://maplestreetbiscuits.com/menu/

BB’s Restaurant – Better for the adults traveling with more dollars than babies, BB’s is an upscale option that is a regular award-winner and must-visit-list topper. Seafood, salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza lead off the menu, and if you’re staying in town after the game, their New Year’s Eve dinner would be a fine choice. http://bbsrestaurant.com

TacoLu Baja Mexicana – A local staple in a historic building, this is where you’ll find me all week in Jacksonville. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but TacoLu is worth the effort. Excellent Mexican food, Taco Lu has a cheeseburger quesadilla, beef brisket enchiladas and even a filet mignon taco on its menu of a dozen specialty tacos. Check it out. http://www.tacolu.com

Singleton’s Seafood Shack – If you’re in the mood for seafood – fresh or fried – with a view of the water, Singleton’s is the place to go. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Singleton’s is worth the drive from the city to the beach. https://www.facebook.com/singletonsmayport/menu/

Metro Diner – Southern, hearty and highly-rated, Metro Diner is where you’ll find Jacksonville’s locals, and with good reason. They serve breakfast all day, but it’s the sandwiches and lunch-and-dinner plates that keep people coming back for more. There’s nothing fancy here, just good food the way we appreciate it in Mississippi. https://metrodiner.com/menus/lunch-menu/

Al’s Pizza – A local chain of, you guessed it, pizza parlors, Al’s has locations spread throughout Jacksonville. A family-friendly joint, Al’s has regularly been voted Jacksonville’s best pizza and has an enjoyably large menu of options not just limited to pizza. https://alspizza.com/menu/jacksonville-menu/

13 Gypsies – Jacksonville has plenty of international flair among its many restaurants, and 13 Gypsies comes highly recommended as a place for adults to spend an evening in the riverfront area. A Spanish-style tapas restaurants also featuring cured meats and cheeses, 13 Gypsies offers one of the areas most extensive drink lists for adults, as well. http://13gypsies.com/menu.html

River City Brewing Company – Another option for the riverfront area, River City Brewing features some of the best views of the water and the surrounding area, while also offering a nice selection of food and local craft beverages. The regular menu isn’t overly pricy anyway, but the happy hour deals on the brew house lounge and deck make for an even more enjoyable and cost-effective way to spend an afternoon of snacking and enjoying the sunshine. http://www.rivercitybrew.com/brew-house

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BEACHES

Right, here we are, arriving at perhaps the best thing about winter in Florida – you can go to the beach. Beyond sunbathing and swimming, the area beaches have surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, paddleboarding and fishing among the many available activities, so don’t feel pressured to just spend your time building sandcastles. For links to any of those activities – as well as several more – I will once again direct you to a quite convenient listing on the Taxslayer Bowl website. Shout out to whoever put that site together. You’ve been helpful. https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/

In fact, I am going to borrow even more extensively from them and share their breakdown of the four areas to choose from in Jacksonville’s 20 miles of white sand beaches.

“Farthest north, the quaint, historic village of Mayport is home to casino boats and seafood restaurants, offering their freshest catch. Head over to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, providing what many consider to be Jacksonville’s favorite biking and hiking trails. The park also offers camping and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding wilderness.

South of Mayport are the communities of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. The intersection of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach is a hot spot that seems to keep getting hotter. Enjoy casual and upscale dining, diverse shopping options and most of all a very happening nightlife scene.

Rounding things out is Jacksonville Beach. The Sea Walk Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, hosts concerts, movies and festivals year round. Get a tan, catch a wave on a boogie board or have a picnic on the beach. Nightlife is also hot in Jacksonville Beach with oceanfront clubs and intimate pubs. For a good, wholesome time, try water slides, go-cart racing and laser tag at nearby Adventure Landing.”

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NEARBY CITIES

So, you drove or flew or sailed all this way, and while you’re in Jacksonville, you also want to check out some of the nearby cities. There are plenty more options than just these, but here are three of my favorites, all within two hours of your hotel in Jacksonville.

St. Augustine – The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine is an easy 45-minute drive from Jacksonville. The scenic city is slow, historic and charmingly upscale with a multitude of museums, a wealth of fine dining, and also an excellent outlet mall where those on a budget like me can look like a rich person from two years ago. https://www.visitstaugustine.com

Orlando – Yeah, I know – duh. But if you’ve never been, it’s only a two-hour drive to reach the No. 1 place on planet earth for theme parks. Disney World and Universal Studios – now featuring two massive areas dedicated to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – are the headliners in a city that is packed to the gills not just with tourists, but ways for those tourists to have an absolute ball. Pro-tip learned from a college internship working at Disney World: the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one of the busiest weeks of the years for all parks. They’re prepared for it, of course, but I offer two recommendations here. 1. Arrive early if you’re going these days. 2. If you can swing it, wait and make your trip after New Year’s Day when the massive crowds have gone back home and the short lines are just you, a few other smart people and the South Americans visiting during their summer break.

Savannah, Georgia – Most people don’t seem to realize how far south this very southern city is, but just a two-hour straight shot north from Jacksonville is one of my favorite cities. Savannah is considered the most haunted city in America, but beyond that, its historic downtown is also one of the most walkable and its culinary scene is quietly becoming one of the most respected in southern cuisine. You’ll enjoy yourself just fine if you want to go to Paula Deen’s restaurant with the other tourists, but locals know that the best family-style southern dining is at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, where you better arrive early to get in line. My highest of recommendations also go to the funky Treylor Park on Bay Street and to The Grey, the James Beard Award-winning upscale restaurant in a converted old Greyhound Bus station.

The first planned city in America, Savannah’s two-dozen squares are lined with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, and with the Savannah College of Art and Design spread throughout the historic district, the beauty and charm are not just limited to the plants and parks. If you go to Savannah – and really, I hope that you do – tweet or email me and I can share some more good spots. https://www.visitsavannah.com

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Q&A With New Pass Game Coordinator And QB Coach Andrew Breiner

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi State football announced the hiring of Andrew Breiner as the pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for new head coach Joe Moorhead. Breiner and Moorhead have a long history together, having worked together initially for three years at UConn, then from 2012-15 at Fordham with Moorhead as the head coach and Breiner as his offensive coordinator.

Breiner spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Fordham after Moorhead was named the offensive coordinator at Penn State, and now the two will be reunited in Starkville. HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon caught up with Breiner to talk about Moorhead, MSU and the new job. The full transcript of the question and answer session can be found below.

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Bob Carskadon: You’ve worked with Moorhead a lot in the past, so I feel like it’s safe to say you wouldn’t join his staff at Mississippi State if you didn’t think good things were possible. What makes him a good head coach?

Andrew Breiner: I mean, I’ve seen with my own two eyes the way he motivates the young men on the team, the way he rallies them together, and the way he instills confidence because of the way that things are done and that they know they’re prepared going into each and every game. The Xs and Os – Joe’s reputation is out there as an offensive mind, but what really makes him a great coach is his ability to lead by motivating, inspiring, rallying together and instilling confidence.

BC: You mention those Xs and Os – you were a part of creating that innovative offense years ago at UConn and Fordham. In those early days, what was the process like as far as tweaking, experimenting and learning? What kind of advancements have you made since then?

AB: It was a long process. I still remember when Joe got to UConn. We got there, I think, the same day, and his family was still in Akron and I was single at the time, so we were spending long hours just putting install tapes together and playbooks together and learning the base of it then. We got to Fordham and had a chance with Joe as the head coach having the ultimate say to make some modifications and changes. What we’ve always done is spend time after each season watching offenses and taking ideas that we think fit. It’s been a consistent evolution. No two years are going to be the exact same, but it’s never going to depart too far from its foundation either.

BC: For your role as pass game coordinator, what are some of the necessary skills and traits for quarterbacks and receivers in this style of passing game?

AB: The quarterback position, we’re looking for a guy that is equally a threat as a passer and also as an athlete with the ball in his hands. Decision making is No. 1 for the quarterback position, guys that we can teach the system to and have them make the right decision on a consistent basis. The wide receiver position, we have a few different positions and they all have their kind of unique skillset, but we’re looking for guys that, obviously, are fast, that have the ability to change direction and run precise routes, and most importantly make plays when the ball is in the air.

BC: Along those lines, I know you haven’t even had a practice or anything at MSU, but from what you’re aware of and have been able to learn, what do you see in the roster you have and what possibilities do you see with some of the individual talent?

AB: At this point, the only position I have any familiarity with is the quarterbacks. I have not gotten a chance to really dive into the receivers yet. I’ve watched a little bit of Nick [Fitzgerald’s] tape and think he’s a guy that has the skillset that we’re looking for. I look forward to working with him and developing him in his senior year. I actually just happened to be watching the Egg Bowl and watched KT [Keytaon Thompson] in that game, who you can see has the skills and the tools that are very similar to the quarterbacks we’ve had in this offense who have had a lot of success.

Obviously, both guys are going to have to go through a learning curve and we’ll work incredibly hard with them to get them up to speed. Once you get that done, you can let their physical talents shine through. It’s just a matter of getting them comfortable within the system.

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The Science Behind Weatherspoon, William And MSU’s Buzzer-Beating Shots

For over 40 years, my dad has been teaching psychology at Mississippi State. Dr. Thomas Carskadon’s section of General Psychology can be one of the toughest to get into, despite the fact that it’s held in a 300-person auditorium in Dorman Hall. “Dr. C” is appreciated for his entertaining stories that always, in some way, relate to the subject matter, and I got to have the experience of taking his class when I was a freshman at MSU.

However, despite my knowledge that he knows what he’s talking about after decades of teaching, publishing and researching psychological matters, I disagreed with him on one particular subject of his lectures. As you might imagine given the fact that I’m sharing this story in this venue, it was an issue with sports.

Psychology tells us that athletes being on a hot streak is a myth. Or perhaps a better way to explain it would be to call it a mirage. It’s not what we think it is. In basketball, for example, someone making a long streak of consecutive shots doesn’t mean that player is “in the zone,” or however you’d like to describe such a scenario. Sure, those streaks happen, but over time, shooting is – supposedly – no different than flipping a coin.

Whether a quarter has landed on tails 10 times in a row or one, there is still a 50 percent chance that the next flip will land on tails, no better and no worse. It’s always a 50-50 shot. The same applies for a basketball player: if they’re, say, a 45 percent shooter from the field, then there is always a 45 percent chance the shot will go in. Streaks are going to happen naturally, but over time, they’re meaningless beyond a means for the numbers to work themselves out, despite what it feels like when we watch.

Well, I disagree, and I told him as much in class that day – in a respectful manner, of course – but we haven’t discussed it since. For the first time in years, I revisited the subject with him on Sunday when MSU junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon made his second game-winning buzzer beater in three games and the third of his career at MSU, having drilled his first one as a freshman to beat Vanderbilt at Humphrey Coliseum.

Making shots like that is as difficult as it is rare, so I wondered if the same principle applied. I texted my dad after the game to see what psychology and odds had to say on the subject, expecting another answer that would completely diffuse the narrative of there being something special or impressive about Weatherspoon’s feats.

I was wrong.

The first message: “The greater the presence of others, crowd, noise, and the resulting stress, the more the most probable response is intensified. Thus, a mediocre person will get worse, but a true star will get better.”

And the second: “Actually, the bridge word is really arousal: The crowd, the stress, etc., increase arousal in the player, and it is arousal that intensifies the most probable response, i.e. super play by super stars, but diminished play by lesser players.”

 

So there we have it: science proves that Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

After checking with the psychology expert, I asked the player himself. When you’re in those moments, does your blood pump extra hard? Is your mind racing? In short, can you feel the stress and gravity of the situation? Again, I didn’t get the answer I expected.

“It feels normal,” Weatherspoon answered, “like there are 20 minutes on the clock. I’m just trying to get a shot up and it’s falling.”

Psychology was right. The stress has no effect on Weatherspoon except to help him even more easily do what he so naturally does well: make shots.

“I can remember four times in my 22 years as a head coach that we won a game at the buzzer [before this season]. Now it’s six, and he has three of them, so it’s amazing,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “He’s just a player. He really makes plays. He’s a player and he makes plays.”

Perhaps as impressive as the made shot was Weatherspoon’s awareness in the short time leading up to it. When he got the steal near the sideline on Dayton’s side of the court, time was already almost up. Most players would likely have taken a few long strides and thrown up a low-percentage three-pointer when they saw the game clock dip down to one second left. Weatherspoon kept going, though, much to Howland’s delight.

In those 22 years of coaching that he mentioned, Howland has learned a lot, and with the game tied, he knew his team only needed one point. Taking a three-pointer would not only have been excessive, but it would have cut the possible ways to score in half. By driving all the way to the basket and taking a contested shot, there was the hope of A) Making the shot and B) Getting fouled and earning another opportunity to score on a free throw in case the shot didn’t go in.

In Weatherspoon’s case, of course, option No. 2 never mattered, but the fact that he still made the right call to drive all the way to the basket with, almost literally, no time to think about it, only underlines the moral of the story: Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

Those who follow MSU sports know well that shots like these, despite how uncommon they are elsewhere, have become something of a regular occurrence lately. After all, it was just this spring that then-junior point guard Morgan William made the biggest play in the school’s athletic history when she hit The Shot, a buzzer-beater to upset No. 1 UConn and advance MSU’s women’s basketball team to the National Championship. Following such a spectacular feat, even the opposing coach had to admit that what he had just seen was special.

“That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, under that kind of pressure,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said that day.

But William, as psychology could have told us, only excels under pressure. Just the weekend before, William had racked up 41 points and seven steals in an overtime win against the heavily-favored Baylor Bears in the Elite Eight, just one day removed from the three-year anniversary of her father’s death. That William, like Weatherspoon, first made her mark as a freshman when she hit a buzzer-beater to defeat rival Ole Miss should be no surprise.

These Bulldogs have always been stars. They’ve hit the shots to prove it.

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From Plane To Fame: Behind The Scenes Of Joe Moorhead’s First Day At MSU

Through third parties, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had an idea he could be a candidate for head coach at Mississippi State before the Bulldogs were technically even in the market for one. MSU athletic director John Cohen, who took the position barely one year ago after a long and successful career as a baseball coach, had known well in advance that he may need a new football coach, so he had been consistently researching and preparing for some time when the moment to act finally came.

The whirlwind began Sunday when MSU’s coaching vacancy became official, and over the next 48 hours, neither Cohen nor Moorhead had more than seconds at a time to let their minds stop racing. In their first interview, Cohen came away impressed enough to ask for a second sit-down with Moorhead. Meanwhile, Moorhead was researching players, recruits, history and anything else he could find on MSU as he worked to impress Cohen.

To Moorhead’s surprise, the second interview very quickly turned into a job offer. That offer was followed by contract discussions, conversations on his coaching staff and their compensation, a storm of trying to find printers to print a hardcopy of the deal they had struck and a quick review of the particulars to make sure everything was fully in order before pen hit paper. When Moorhead lifted his hand, fresh ink marking his signature as MSU’s 33rd head football coach, he could relax for the first time in what surely felt like weeks.

Though no one outside the room knew it at the time, Moorhead had just become the SEC’s newest coach, and once that moment hit, once his mind was able to go back to normal, Moorhead pulled his phone out of his pocket, swiped away the hundreds of notifications and pulled up a video he had saved of his 10-year-old son playing baseball, turning the screen so Cohen could see it.

“What do you think about his swing?” Moorhead asked his new boss.

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4:15 p.m., Wednesday, Bryan Airfield, Starkville

“This is unbelievable.”

When Joe Moorhead steps off the plane, it’s his first time to touch ground in Starkville, and on the other side of the fence lining the runway, there are over 1,000 people he’s never seen in his life screaming his name, clapping their hands and shouting in general admiration and excitement for someone they, too, have never met before. In that moment – the one right before he diverts from the cleared path to his transport van and walks the length of the fence shaking every hand, signing every cowbell and even picking up the dog someone randomly hands him through the bars of the fence – Moorhead realizes for the first time what he’s in for. And he loves it.

“I held a dog. I’m covered in Sharpie. Can’t make that stuff up,” he muses afterward. “It was incredible.”

5:30 p.m., Annabelle Condominiums

In the condo graciously lent to his family to stay in while they search for a house, Moorhead is either scrambling or relaxing, depending which moment you catch him, though his mind is running whether he’s working the phone or working the room. A few alumni, several members of the support staff, Moorhead’s wife and three kids, and a few others fill the living room and porch of the spacious condo.

Taking a moment to relax his legs, Moorhead sits on the porch swing as he maintains at least three different conversations in any given moment. In one breath he’s talking about recruits with staffer and Mississippi high schools expert Brad Peterson. Moorhead called every offensive commit MSU has before he even left Pennsylvania that afternoon, getting all but two of them on the phone for an extended conversation.

“Fantastic,” he says when asked what their response has been like. “They’re all fantastic.”

In the next breath, he’s going back and forth with MSU CFO Jared Benko as they discuss reaching out to potential assistants.

“We’re going to have a great staff,” Moorhead tells Ben Nelson, the owner of the condo. “I could make 10 calls and have a staff done like that, but I want to take my time and get the best people. I’ve learned this much: measure twice, cut once. We’re going to do this right.”

In another breath, he’s talking with Jay Perry, his player personnel man and tour guide for the first couple days on the job, about the players he met at the airfield after he landed.

“You know your ring size?” Moorhead had asked them when introduced that afternoon. “You better find out.”

As Moorhead rises to leave for a meet-and-greet with the head coaches of all of MSU’s other sports, Nelson steps over to say his final words.

“Alright, coach. Honeymoon is over. Let’s get to work.”

“No one around here has low expectations,” Moorhead assures him. “We’re about to get after it.”

6 p.m., Davis Wade Stadium

For the first time, Joe Moorhead steps into Davis Wade Stadium and onto Scott Field. His family beside him, his 16-year-old daughter Kyra yells with glee when she walks out of the tunnel and sees MSU’s live mascot Bully being led around the endzone. While she hurries off to pet him, Moorhead’s 10-year-old son Donovan looks to midfield as he tells dad, “time my 40,” and promptly runs out onto the field.

Moorhead turns to MSU’s Associate A.D. for Communication Bill Martin: “Is he allowed on the field?”

“Of course,” Martin replies. “It’s your field now.”

Inside the Gridiron Club after a few pictures on the field, Moorhead is approached by a muscle-bound man and his pregnant wife.

“Hey, Joe,” MSU’s baseball coach begins, “I’m Andy Cannizaro. I’m the baseb- “

Right there, Moorhead interrupts him.

“Oh, I know who you are,” Moorhead says. “I remember you. You played for the Yankees. I used to live in the Bronx.”

Cannizaro immediately breaks into an appreciative laugh as he discovers something about this big-time football coach: Moorhead is a huge baseball fan. Technically, he’s a huge fan of his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates (he can name every member of the 1979 World Series Champion team, according to John Cohen), but baseball is actually the first sport Moorhead ever played before going on to be an all-conference quarterback in college.

And in fact, this isn’t even his first random Yankees interaction, as Moorhead’s 15-year-old son Mason used to play on the same little league baseball team as former Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s daughter.

“I’m a big baseball guy,” Moorhead will later tell a group of assembled reporters and fans.

That he was hired by a former baseball coach is mere coincidence, of course.

10:30 p.m., Starkville Cotton District

Late at night after hours of meeting with staff members, calling recruits and continuing work on the hundreds of little things required to start a coaching regime, Moorhead goes to the bar. Well, bars, plural, and he’s not there for himself. In Starkville’s central area for nightlife, Moorhead is out to meet and give away cheese fries to hundreds of students who are celebrating the last day of classes.

On his way down the street, Moorhead is mobbed by jumping, whooping and selfie-taking 18-22 year olds who are amazed that their new head coach is there and that they get to meet him. Immediately, a line forms, snaking down the street, with hundreds of them ready to take a picture with Moorhead and accept his offer of free cheese fries. Working the kitchen window, Moorhead’s limbs are constantly in motion as he passes trays over the counter, shakes hands with students and poses for pictures.

“Hey, sugar!” The high-pitched, southern, female voice rings into the kitchen. “We’re so excited! Can we have a picture?”

“Of course,” comes the reply.

“He’s an angel!” she yells as she turns to her friend and asks her to take the picture.

When the clock hits 11, Moorhead is still going, slinging fries and smiles and handshakes despite the lack of sleep and the long list of things he must do in a short period of time.

“Our head football coach is serving us cheese fries right now,” one awestruck student says as he tries to savor the moment. “I love this man.”

9:02 a.m., Wednesday, Seal Football Complex

Joe Moorhead is waiting outside the door of MSU’s team meeting room where athletic director John Cohen is in the process of introducing him to the team. Everyone else is outside in the hallway as Moorhead has made it clear he wants only himself and his team in the room when he has his first meeting with them. No other coaches, no support staff, no one but Moorhead and his players. He wants to speak directly to them, and he wants them to understand that they are now in it together.

While he waits, Moorhead is chatting with people in the hallway about how wild the last 18 hours had been, confessing that he didn’t get much sleep due on one hand to the fact he woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t stop thinking about how much he needed to do, and on the other hand because they eventually had to pry his youngest son’s new cowbell out of his hand when he wouldn’t stop ringing it while the rest of the family was trying to sleep.

“We’re going to have to take the ringer out or something,” he jokes.

Moorhead admits that his 10-year-old has an endless internal supply of energy, sharing the story from the weekend about the first morning after the regular season for Penn State ended. Moorhead thought he would be able to sleep in, but early in the morning, he was woken up by his son poking him and begging him to go outside with him to do quarterback drills. Every day at PSU football practice, Moorhead explains, his son goes through drills right alongside the quarterbacks, and Moorhead expects he’ll do the same at MSU. So just because the regular season is over is no reason to stop practicing.

“You out of your mind?” Moorhead recalls asking his son, who by then had shoulder pads strapped on over his sweatshirt while they threw the ball in the backyard. “It’s 20 degrees out here. We’re going to get frostbite.”

The anecdote comes to an end as, inside the team room, Cohen’s voice continues to rise in volume, finally reaching a peak when the door is thrown open and Moorhead walks in to thunderous applause, greeting his Bulldogs for the very first time.

Half an hour later, the meeting ends. The details of Moorhead’s speech will remain between he and the team, but their impact is crystal clear when one player is stopped by a staffer and asked how it went.

“We’re going to win a championship,” he says, a deadly-serious look on his face. “Guarantee it.”

10 a.m., multi-purpose room, Seal Football Complex

At last, Moorhead is ready to address his final constituency. He’s gone through the job interviews, called the recruits, met the team and even started talking to future members of his staff. But he hasn’t yet spoken directly to Mississippi State fans. Now, the moment has arrived.

Reporters will focus on many of the things Moorhead says, as well as several of the things Cohen and MSU President Mark Keenum say about him in their introductory remarks. His offensive prowess and innovation will certainly be discussed, and the decisions to be made on staffing and recruiting will be expounded upon, as well.

But one story – a story that is shared twice, once each by Moorhead and Cohen – offers more insight than any other answer that either person gives to the many questions asked. The story of Murph Moorhead, Sr., is the origin of everything that has Joe Moorhead in this moment now.

Murph, Joe’s father, often had as many as three jobs at a time in an effort to provide for his family, and for 35 years his primary job was as a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh. The sacrifices he made helped to create the man his son has become.

One day when Joe was young, his dad brought him with him to the steel mill, and what happened that day is a story that helped sell Cohen on his new football coach.

“He said his dad took him to work,” Cohen remembers Moorhead telling him, “and the movie scenes of fire and this lava-like steel – it’s real. He was right in the middle of it. He asked, ‘Why are you taking me to work, what are we doing here?’ He said, ‘I wanted you to see this. I’m doing this so that you won’t have to.’”

Murph wanted a better life for his children than he had, wanted them to have opportunities, and thanks to his sacrifice, Murph’s children are first-generation college graduates.

“I really think my formation as a person and what I stand for was understanding what a blue collar work ethic meant,” Joe Moorhead tells the crowd early in his speech. “It didn’t matter how cold it was, didn’t matter how warm it was, didn’t matter how early in the morning it was or how late at night. He got up every day and went to work, came home and got something to eat, and whether his second job was a bartender or janitor, he did whatever he needed to do to put food on the table and provide for his family and make sure that they were well-educated. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to make sure that our children’s lives are better than our own. I can’t be more appreciative of my father.

“He told me,” Moorhead finishes, “’I do this so you don’t have to,’ and that meant a lot to me.”

He likely didn’t realize it at the time, but sharing that story with Cohen is a big part of why he stands at the podium now.

“I loved it. I’m always trying to write a movie script in my mind, and that’s a beautiful script,” Cohen says. “For him to talk about how he was parented was really important to me, because in some ways, he’s going to parent 100 football student-athletes here. I wanted to know that he had that club in his bag, and he certainly does.”

Moorhead’s background also helped convince Cohen that Moorhead, despite having minimal ties to the south, was a perfect cultural fit for MSU’s program.

“We were looking for someone who had a blue collar personality, but an intellectual personality at the same time. We were looking for someone who had to overcome adversity at some point in their life. Because wherever you find people who are incredibly successful, you usually find that they had some type of adversity that they had to overcome.

“If they’ve never had that moment where life kind of punched them in the face, then how are they going to react when it happens for the first time in the Southeastern Conference? There’s no question, when you talk about Joe Moorhead, he’s had that moment and he can reflect on that.”

When the press conference ends, Moorhead is minutes away from his 18-hour blitz of interviews and introductions coming to an end. He takes pictures with his family before they leave to fly back to Pennsylvania, hugging his kids and kissing his wife goodbye after the final snap of the lens.

“Good luck,” he tells his wife Jennifer. “Let me know if you buy a house!”

After a quick interview with MSU radio play-by-play announcer Neil Price, Moorhead is done. Walking out of the team room for the second time today, Moorhead’s gait picks up as he strides to his office in the back of the building. There is a job he was hired to do, and he can’t wait to get started.

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Moorhead’s last words as the team filed out of the meeting room Thursday morning were directed at star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the first person on the team Moorhead had reached out to Tuesday when he took the job, having texted the redshirt junior and told him to get ready for a big senior year. Looking Fitzgerald in the eyes as they shook hands Thursday, Moorhead reminded him of that.

“My family is about to fly back home,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere. Come by the office and let’s talk. We’re going to do big things.”

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Scheme, Philosophy, Recruiting And The History Channel: A Q&A With Joe Moorhead

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi State announced Joe Moorhead as its new head football coach, and on Wednesday afternoon, the innovative coordinator behind Penn State’s offensive explosion the last two seasons touched down in Starkville to be officially welcomed as a Bulldog. Joined by his wife Jennifer, their daughter Kyra and their two sons Mason and Donovan, Moorhead was welcomed by a crowd of over 1,000 at Bryan Airfield.

Shortly after arrival, Moorhead sat down for a few minutes with HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon to talk about his new job, his philosophy on coaching and a handful of other topics. The following is a transcript of that conversation. For more from Moorhead and his arrival, follow @HailStateFB on Twitter and Facebook.

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Bob Carskadon: So, I’ll start with the obvious question here. You’ve had opportunities to take other jobs before and didn’t. Why Mississippi State?

Joe Moorhead: It checked off all the boxes. When considering opportunities, there are three criteria: personal, professional and monetary. For myself and my family, the Mississippi State and Starkville community seemed like an awesome opportunity. Professionally, it’s the opportunity to lead a team in the most competitive conference in the country. Monetarily, I’m able to set my family up for a type of lifestyle I could have never dreamed of as a kid growing up. Those three things combined just made it special.

BC: I’ve read a ton about you since your name came up, all about your offensive prowess and innovation and success. My question is, how do you take something so complicated and boil it down to a point where 18-22 year olds can pick up on it quickly?

JM: Well, I kind of look at it this way: there are three criteria we talk about as an offensive coaching staff, relative to our scheme. Is it sound, can we teach it, and can the players execute it? If it doesn’t fit one of those three then we don’t use it. We don’t want to do a million different things and major in the minors. We want to pick out the things that we do successfully and make it, with window dressing, look a little more complicated than it actually is. Our simplicity and flexibility combined with our players’ culture, work ethic, discipline and talent, has made us a pretty special offense the past couple years.

BC: On the other side of the ball, is there a particular defensive philosophy or scheme you prefer?

JM: No, I want our entire program to have an attacking philosophy. We’re not going to be a team in any phase of the game – offense, defense, special teams – where we’re going to sit back and let someone dictate the game to us. We’re going to attack on offense, attack on defense, and we’ll get after it on special teams. Now, obviously, everything in moderation. You can’t blitz every single play, but we’re going to be a team that’s going to get after it physically and not let the quarterback get comfortable, and get 11 hats to the ball.

BC: Well, that answers my next question, which was going to be about your general approach and team philosophy. Let’s move to recruiting. Obviously, you’re going to look for talented players – big, fast, strong, all that. But what are some of the intangible characteristics you look for in recruiting?

JM: The first thing you look at is, does the player possess the athletic and football ability to help Mississippi State win an SEC Championship and compete for a National Championship. After that, I’m a believer in the intangibles and how they manifest themselves on the field. We want kids that are smart, tough, disciplined, possess a great work ethic and care about team success more than individual recognition. The three things that I think are imperative to success: talent, culture and coaching. Recruit a roster full of talented kids who do things the right way, put them in a culture that’s going to demand accountability, productivity and persistence, then through scheme put them in a position to be successful. I think that’s the recipe for success.

BC: I’ll ask one last question to finish up, and we’ll get away from football on this one. In the little free time you have away from coaching, recruiting, studying and everything else that goes with the job, how do you spend your time? What things do you enjoy doing?

JM: I enjoy watching TV, particularly reality TV. My latest thing is the History Channel. I’ve been on an American Pickers kick. Been watching a lot of Oak Island, a lot of Pawn Stars. Then we have shows we watch as a family. Then usually if I’m not here, I’m at one of their games or practices hanging out with them. I stink at golf. I’d love to fish if I had more time. But yeah, we’re watching TV or out playing ball.

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Fitzgerald Takes Over As Leader During Coaching Transition

The gap barely stretched 48 hours of real time, but from Sunday night to Wednesday morning, Mississippi State’s old football coach was gone and its new one had yet to be identified. The coaching vacuum was impressively brief, but when the Bulldogs lost the man who had led their program the last nine years – plus several of the people who helped him do it – it seemed for a moment that they might not know who they were anymore.

They were 8-4. They were No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings. They were going to a bowl game. But who was their leader? What was their identity? What was going to happen to them next? Was everything they had worked for about to fall apart?

If there was panic at all in the locker room, it didn’t last long. Had this happened to last year’s team, perhaps things would have gone differently, but in 2017, MSU had figured out who it was, and the leaders of the team weren’t about to let one person leaving change that.

At 5:45 Sunday afternoon, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took to Twitter to let everyone – teammates and fans alike – know exactly where his team stood.

“Thank you coach Mullen for building this program into what it is today,” his tweet began. “But a program is bigger than 1 person! We pride ourselves on our ability to always give relentless effort and I am very excited to be able to lead this team to a new level next season! #HaiIState”

Behind the scenes, Fitzgerald was repeating the message to his teammates, joining other team leaders in helping to ensure that morale and expectations both remained high. Fitzgerald said he knew there was an onus on the team leadership to keep things moving in the right direction, and his challenge to his teammates was simple.

“With Coach Mullen leaving and him bringing other guys with him, it leaves a lot of holes in the coaching staff, but all of us players are still here, we’re all the same people,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday night. “From a player standpoint, you know have to be a voice. Someone has to step up. Someone has to kind of rally the troops, keep everyone calm and make sure we all realize that coaches weren’t the ones making the plays on the field. We were doing that. We’re coming back. We’re going to be just fine.”

Sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, one of the more vocal leaders in the locker room, shared a similar message when he followed Fitzgerald’s Sunday tweet with one of his own exhorting his teammates.

“We will be alright I promise you that,” he tweeted. “Our goal is to take one day at a time. No matter what may happen, nothing will break this team! We all we got we all we need! #HaiIState #Finish”

Fitzgerald, in his new role as acting figurehead for the program, even went so far as to reach out to MSU’s current recruits, knowing that a change at head coach could be a worrisome thought for many who already committed to play at State.

Tweeted Fitzgerald, “#stateteam18 Y’all didn’t commit to a coach.. you committed to a program, to a family! Coaches didn’t make those throws, catches, tackles, etc.. The real Miss State team is still here in stark and we about to do something special! Come be a real part of it!”

The point, Fitzgerald said, was to make sure that recruits and commits don’t freak out over something that only ended up lasting about two days. Fitzgerald knows how good MSU can be in 2018, his senior year, regardless of who is on the sideline, and he wanted to share that message with those who aren’t yet on campus.

“For the recruits coming in, my tweet was saying, hey, just because a coach leaves, doesn’t mean anything about the program changes,” Fitzgerald said. “The team is still coming back. We’re still going to have 18-20 starters returning. We’re going to be fine. Just because a coach leaves doesn’t change the fact that the players are here, we’re ready to play and we’re still going to have a good season. That can impact them. The rest of the program is the same. We’re ready to rock, so y’all just come be a part of it.”

And now, the gap has been bridged. Reports leaked late Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning Mississippi State announced Joe Moorhead as its 33rd head football coach. And as luck would have it for MSU’s dual-threat quarterback, his new coach happens to be one of the smartest and most creative offensive minds in the country. And his specialty: the spread.

“Couldn’t be more excited!” Fitzgerald tweeted. “Welcome to the family!”

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The Evolution Of The Egg Bowl, Its Passion And Its New Meaning For MSU

Long before Nick Fitzgerald was a record-breaking quarterback for Mississippi State, and years before Dak Prescott was QB1 for the biggest franchise in the country, the two young men were relative unknowns at a game together for the first time. Fitzgerald, a senior at Richmond Hill High School, and Prescott, a sophomore at MSU, were far younger that day in 2013 when Fitzgerald had his first experience with the Egg Bowl.

A no-star recruit on his official visit to MSU, Fitzgerald was cheering in the stands when he watched Prescott make his miraculous comeback in the Egg Bowl’s first-ever overtime game, and when MSU safety Nickoe Whitley forced Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to fumble into the endzone and secure the win for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald was among the loudest of those celebrating the win.

“That was my first taste of it,” Fitzgerald said. “That was a good one to come to.”

It wasn’t until the next morning, however, that the depth of the rivalry sunk in for Fitzgerald. At a breakfast for the official visitors, Fitzgerald got to hold the Golden Egg Trophy for the very first time, and though he didn’t know it at the moment, the last time for nearly three years.

“It was a really cool experience seeing how we fought and won it the night before and saw the environment and atmosphere and how people reacted,” he said, “so I really understood the gravity of the situation and how good it was to have that trophy.”

Fitzgerald had to watch from the sidelines as his team lost the next two Egg Bowls, frustration and anger festering until he finally got a shot at the Rebels on his own terms. In his first Egg Bowl as the starting quarterback, Fitzgerald put on a career performance as he led his Bulldogs to a 55-20 victory in 2016, re-claiming the Golden Egg and securing the last victory necessary to send State to a bowl in game in south Florida.

Three years after that breakfast in Starkville, Fitzgerald got to lift the Golden Egg again, and what he learned about the rivalry that day in 2013 still hasn’t changed.

“There’s animosity. There’s nastiness. It’s a big rivalry,” he said.

Except that, well, now …

“It’s a big game, but at the end, it’s an SEC game you’ve got to win,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Once you’re out there and playing, it’s just another game.”

MSU’s head coach attempted to explain that idea, as well. When Dan Mullen first got to Starkville, the program didn’t have much going for it, and winning the Egg Bowl was really the only realistic thing the fanbase could hang its collective hat on at the time. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2009, Mullen’s first season, fans were ready to build a statue. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2016, there were those among the fanbase calling for his job.

The reason for that, Mullen said, is that in the years between, MSU’s program has grown significantly, rising to national prominence and developing expectations of doing far more than winning one game at the end of the year.

“We’re looking to try to have our third nine-win season in four years,” Mullen said as his team sits at 8-3 entering Thursday’s Egg Bowl. “As I look at it right now, we’ve changed a little bit of the image, the profile, whatever the right word is. We’ve just changed the program around. Now we’re a nationally-prominent program with the expectation of being a Top-20, Top-15 team every year. I don’t want to belittle it, because this is still the biggest game of the year for us within the program and in the fanbase. It’s still the biggest game of the year. But we’ve also elevated the level of the program with a little more national prominence. It’s not all about one game now. We’re trying to compete for championships in the SEC and National Championships.”

He’s certainly got a point. The year MSU was No. 1 in the country, it also lost the Egg Bowl. And that was rough, certainly, but it didn’t make or break the season. The Bulldogs still went to the Orange Bowl.

With MSU in a position of prominence it hasn’t experienced in decades, the passion of the rivalry lies in seeming juxtaposition with the bigger goals of the program. Fitzgerald and his coach, however, think the Egg Bowl and the big picture go hand-in-hand, even if the big picture is much bigger than just the Golden Egg.

“A rivalry game fits right into that,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a game you’ve got to win if you want to keep getting better, if you want to go to a warmer bowl. On top of it being a rivalry game, it’s an SEC game. It’s a game that we have to win to continue on and make sure we finish out strong and get a good bowl game.”

To be clear, Mullen says, the rivalry hasn’t been lessened. It’s just that everything else about the program has risen in importance to match the Egg Bowl. Now, the game is about the trophy and what it means for the postseason. Entering the game at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, MSU has a chance to not only lock up a good bowl destination, but to potentially earn a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the second time in four years if they can pull off a Thanksgiving win.

But for all that’s on the line, Mullen is a realist, and a passionate one, at that. He could tell his team to treat it like any other game, and perhaps in the moments between kickoff and the final whistle it can feel that way for the teams involved, but Mullen knows this game is different, no matter the stakes.

“I want them to embrace it and I don’t have to worry about it. They do. It’s not another game. The rivalry games are just not. It’s an important game for everybody. I don’t even have to bring it up,” he said. “I think everybody in our program embraces it. And I mean everybody in our program. I’m not just talking about the players or the coaches or the trainers or everybody just in this building. I’m talking about everybody in the Bryan Building embraces it. I know everybody in the President’s office embraces it. It’s a big game for Mississippi State people. It’s a big game for their people, as well, just the bragging rights within the state. That’s what makes rivalries so fun and makes college football so special.”

The only trophy not displayed in a case or out in the lobby of the team complex in view of the public, the Golden Egg today sits on a table right beside the door to Mullen’s office. If Mullen gets his way, that’s exactly where it will stay for the next 12 months – except, perhaps, for another breakfast with the Egg Bowl stars of tomorrow.

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Collins To Retire After 41 Years As Team Physician For MSU Football

There are a great many ways to measure success, and in sports, longevity is often one of the best indicators. After all, in such a competitive world, you’re only allowed to keep doing something as long as you’re good at it. Look at Mississippi State’s football program, for example, where it is no coincidence that the two coaches with the most impressive lists of accomplishments are also the ones with the longest careers.

Dan Mullen is in his ninth season as head coach at MSU and is only a half dozen wins away from passing Jackie Sherrill as the winningest coach in school history. Sherrill, of course, is the longest-tenured coach the Bulldogs have ever had, coaching a full 13 seasons.

So what does it say that this week’s Egg Bowl will close out the 41st and final season for one man on the MSU sideline? Dr. Robert K. Collins is retiring as the head team physician after a career that began as an assistant under John C. Longest in 1977, over a decade before Sherrill ever stepped foot on Scott Field and over 30 years before Mullen joined Collins on the sidelines in Davis Wade Stadium.

Collins and his wife first came to Starkville as a young couple with no expectations of staying for long, but 40 years later, they have become permanent members of the community, enthusiastic supporters for the growth of both Starkville and MSU. As the university and city have grown, so have the responsibilities Collins has accepted. When Longest retired in 1988 as the head team physician and head of MSU’s student health center, Collins stepped up and took on both roles, becoming a medical pillar of support for multiple generations of Bulldogs, students and athletes alike.

Collins retired from the health center a few years ago, though he kept his role with MSU’s football team, and now, after a career and lifetime dedicated to the health and wellness of others, Collins is finally turning his attention the other direction and retiring to a life where nights are spent with family at home rather than teams on practice fields and weekends are spent building model ships or skeet shooting instead of working on the road. In fact, it was on one of those road trips early this season that Collins ultimately settled on full retirement as his next step.

“I made the decision after we came back from Auburn,” he said. “It was a long bus ride. I’m not one that can come in immediately, put my head on the pillow and go to sleep. I’ve got to relax a little bit. I was sitting in my easy chair and saw a skeet magazine that I hadn’t looked at. I picked it up and started looking through it and said, ‘You know, I’ve really missed a lot of my hobbies.’ I turned 70 last month and it just dawned on me. I don’t have a whole lot of years left. I have years left, I just don’t know how many. If I’m going to do things I want to do, I need to take the time to start doing them and let someone else take over and have the joy and fun of being the team physician.”

In such a long career, there is hardly a Bulldog legend in any sport who hasn’t spent time with Collins, and watching the doctor at any game, practice or event, he can hardly take a step without someone he grew to know in his 40 years coming up to chat or just say hello. Likewise, just about every big moment in the modern era of MSU football has occurred with Collins on the sideline, whether those watching were aware of it or not.

Perhaps it’s because the Egg Bowl is his final game at home on the sidelines – though he will continue to watch his Bulldogs from the stands in the years to come – but as Collins reflected on the highlights that stand out, it was a pair of rivalry games that first came to mind.

“The tip, the pick and the kick,” he said, remembering the famous 1999 Egg Bowl when an ill-advised deep pass by Ole Miss was intercepted by MSU with seconds left on the clock, leading to a last-second field goal to win a game that would otherwise have gone to overtime. “That one hangs in there as a memorable game. Why did he throw that pass?”

Of course, just because a moment is memorable doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good.

“The Immaculate Deflection is on the negative side,” he said, recalling the infamous day when MSU kicker Artie Cosby’s field goal attempt initially went through the uprights but was then blown backwards by a strong gust of wind and was ruled no good. “I still can’t believe that happened. I think about it every time we have a game like we did against Arkansas where there’s a lot of wind and a lot of rain.”

A great deal has changed in 40 years, in Starkville, in medicine and in MSU sports. And while much has changed for Collins and his wife, at least a few things will be returning to the way they used to be, no more magazines left unread and no more hobbies left unpracticed.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my run,” Collins said.

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Bulldogs Rally Around ‘The Chain,’ Display Strength In Win At Arkansas

Every Saturday, the last person to talk to Mississippi State’s football team before they board buses bound for whatever stadium they’re playing in that week, is Nick Savage. In the early afternoon of October 28 in College Station, Texas, Savage was, as usual, meeting with the entire team in the ballroom of their hotel before they played their first road game in a month.

Each week, MSU’s strength coach gives them a different a different pep talk, or “pump-up” speech, as Savage calls it. Knowing that the last two road games had both been hard losses, Savage came up with a speech he believed would help unify his team while back on the road playing against a ranked Texas A&M team in of the country’s most unique college football environments.

Pacing back and forth in front of offense, defense and special teams, Savage held up a chain. Not a small chain. Not the kind used for locking up a storage shed with a push mover and hedge clippers. Savage had a long, thick, industrial size and strength chain hanging from his hands.

“This chain represents us,” he told them. “We are forged from our training, our attitude and our approach every single day. Other teams work hard, but no one has done what we have. Our chain is unbreakable.

“The chain represents our bond with each other,” he continued. “Our family. Our brotherhood.”

The Bulldogs went on to win that game 35-14, dominating the Aggies in stunning fashion, overpowering their foes on both lines of scrimmage and appearing impervious to the screams, chants and pleas of the tens of thousands of A&M fans rallied against them from start to finish.

The chain, as Savage promised, held strong that day, and from there he was ready to move on from the linked metal to whatever piece of motivation he would offer the next Saturday. But then one of the players asked Savage during a workout a couple days later if they were going to keep the chain around. The strength coach laughed it off at first, but by the time the number of players asking about the chain reached double-digits, he realized it might just be a good idea.

“Let’s do it,” head coach Dan Mullen said when Savage asked about breaking the chain out again the following week.

And so The Chain has become a part of what MSU does every week, one player picked every week to carry it onto the field, a symbol of the team’s hard work, a reminder that they are only as strong as they are united.

On Saturday, on the road again for the first time since A&M, the Bulldogs found themselves in need of that reminder. On a cold, windy, gray and occasionally wet afternoon in northwest Arkansas, MSU was at one point down by 14 to the Razorbacks of Arkansas. A series of errors, oddities and missed opportunities continued throughout the game and strained the Bulldogs to a point where most teams would have broken and given in. But MSU had a reminder to not give up.

“That’s what the chain is all about,” Reggie Todd said. “Don’t let go.”

It was Todd, a freshman receiver, who ended up scoring the game-tying touchdown with 3:57 left in the game. He had pleaded with Mullen and junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald for them to call his number. “I’ll be open,” was the unspoken promise, “and I’ll make the play.” The 37-yard touchdown was no surprise to him, to Fitzgerald, to Mullen, to Savage or to anyone else on the sideline where defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was holding the chain in the air.

After that score, it was Simmons’s turn as he and the defense not only needed a stop, but required a stop if their team was going to have a chance to win in regulation.

“That’s something our defense has to do. Can’t fold when adversity hits. That’s how our defense rolls,” the sophomore defensive lineman said as he recalled looking to the sideline and seeing left tackle Martinas Rankin holding the chain. “When you see that chain, you don’t want to be the weak link.”

The defense, as those who watched the game know, held strong. As a result, Fitzgerald and the offense had a shot to go get the win. After a game in which the typically unstoppable group had struggled, there was a chance to atone for it all in one drive. When Fitzgerald stepped back onto the field, he envisioned himself not as one person out of 11 on his offense, but as the driving force of 11 permanent links in a single chain.

“I saw it in his eyes that he wasn’t fixing to lose that game,” Simmons said.

Nine plays, 44 yards and 2:44 later, a sprinting Deddrick Thomas fell into the endzone with the ball in his hands, a six-yard pass squeezed into the tightest of windows by Fitzgerald.

The final 17 seconds passed and, with a final score of 28-21, the Bulldogs rushed to the visiting fan section of Razorback Stadium, chain and victory in hand.

“There was never a doubt that we were going to win,” Fitzgerald said.

The story of the chain symbolizes MSU’s strength, of course, as well as its resilience in situations such as those, being down 14 in a dreary road game. However, its truest representation is that of the team’s personality, unity and bond as teammates. Talent does not equal strength, nor does pride in oneself guarantee success for those around you.

Fitzgerald has spoken openly about the divide MSU had in 2016, his first as the starting quarterback. Not that they didn’t like each other, but there were factions on the team, and Savage’s chain would not likely have been so galvanizing a symbol 12 prior. In 2017, however, the linked metal has served as a perfect example of what it is that makes this team so strong. It’s not just Fitzgerald and Simmons. It’s not just good running or great pass rush. It’s been 11 men playing as one, 100-plus men training as one, to forge a bond that no one person or team can break.

“It’s a really good representation of our mentality around here,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s win. “Last year, we weren’t as close in our bond. We didn’t have that camaraderie. This year, it’s a lot different. We have a group of guys that loves one another, busts our butts for each other. We’re grinding, blood, sweat and tears, for each other, and we all know that. We know the guy standing next to us is going to do everything they can to make sure we win.

“It’s a trust thing,” Fitzgerald finished. “You draw strength from numbers. You draw strength from people who you know have your back. No matter what happens, they’re gonna be there, pick you up, dust you off and hoist you high for the win.”

And on Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, that’s what MSU did.

After the game, Dan Mullen’s son Canon was sitting outside the locker room waiting on his dad when he heard someone nearby wondering aloud about this chain they kept seeing MSU’s players carry around.

“The chain,” Canon asked? Well,” he explained with the clear simplicity only a child can offer, “you can’t break the chain.”

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Williams, Simmons lead way as Bulldogs find new identity

No one can be all that surprised by it. When Dak Prescott finished his college career and moved to Dallas to become the Cowboys’ starting quarterback, there was a hole left in his wake at Mississippi State, a vacuum of personality, charisma, leadership and style. He was the biggest star Starkville, Mississippi had ever called its own, and by nearly any measure, he was the greatest player in the history of MSU football.

When his career came to a close, it left Dan Mullen’s program with a lot of questions to answer. For years, it seemed, their identity had been simple – it was Dak. That easy. Everything the Bulldogs did permeated from their star, and after he left, it sometimes seemed they weren’t quite sure what to do next.

Prescott’s last game at State came in the final days of 2015, and now, nearly two years later, the Bulldogs have figured themselves out again. With an elite rushing attack behind one of the country’s best offensive lines, and with an aggressive defense shutting opponents down at record levels, 7-2 Mississippi State has found it’s new identity.

“We have a little physical mentality to us with the defense and the physicality in running the football,” Mullen said. “I think the whole team takes pride in that – that physicality, that mindset. The defense is like, ‘OK, why don’t you guys throw a 6-8 minute drive together right now. We’re going to sit and catch our breath for a while. You go pound on them and put some pressure on them, then we’re going to come out and get after them again.’ I do think they’re starting to learn that identity.”

MSU, to sum up his words, is the aggressor. It’s an old cliché, but when you play against the Bulldogs, you feel it the next day. Win or lose, they’ll make you work for it. That’s the identity of this team, and with so many of its players back next year, that will be their identity in 2018, as well. On the shoulders of bruising backs, dominating defensive linemen and a host of aggressive, physical players, MSU has emerged from the shadow of the Dak Prescott Era and is now casting its own light as a physically dominant team.

And it all starts with two people. Everything MSU does on offense runs through junior tailback Aeris Williams, and everything MSU does on defense starts with junior defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Others get the praise and attention, as all-everything quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and back-to-back SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Montez Sweat can attest, but all that each unit is able to do spreads from Williams and Simmons who mirror each other as the driving force in the middle of each side of the ball.

On the offensive side, Fitzgerald fills the highlight reels with long runs down the field and deep passes to receivers, while Williams is relegated to smashing himself over and over into the heart of the opposing defense, typically more than 20 times per game. His job is to get the hard yards, thus making easy yards a real thing for the rest of the offense.

“You know, Aeris Williams, you look at his stat line,” Mullen said, “it’s not awe-inspring. But boy, it’s pretty impressive. He takes pride in the pounding and pounding and getting the tough yards that eventually allow for some of these big hits. Now, he might not always be getting the big hit, but he’s doing that.

“I think it is critical, his play,” Mullen continued. “That style of play has set up everything else in the offense.”

It’s something Williams and Fitzgerald see every time the ball is snapped. No matter who gets the ball, no matter where it looks like the ball is going, there is hesitation. When Fitzgerald rolls to the outside, he often finds himself a step, or several steps, ahead of the defenders. Because Williams barrels into the middle of the defense so often, they have to account for it on every play. So when Fitzgerald fakes the handoff, they better be absolutely certain it was really a fake. If it wasn’t and they’re not there when Williams arrives, he’s getting to the second level before they can trip over their own feet in attempted recovery. Just the fear of such a mistake is enough, creating the time Fitzgerald needs to take off for another one of his bulldozing runs through the secondary on his way to the endzone.

On the defensive side, Simmons is tasked with a similar goal: draw the attention of the opposition and force them to worry about him while his teammates exploit advantageous matchups. Simmons is, of course, one of the best defensive tackles in a league full of great ones, and to hear his defensive coordinator Todd Grantham talk about him, it’s no surprise that he’s consistently able to draw double-teams in the middle of the fracas at the line of scrimmage.

“He’s a good player,” Grantham said. “He’s got good size. He’s explosive. Any time you have big people that are explosive and have some burst and run and have acceleration and quickness, those things are very hard to handle inside, particularly with defensive linemen. He really has all those tangibles and he’s fun to coach.”

The metaphoric tip of the spear of MSU’s defense, Simmons – like Williams – is the battering ram that brings down the castle gates. Fellow defensive lineman Braxton Hoyett said the attention Simmons draws is what helps people like him, Sweat, linebacker Gerri Green and many others make the plays they do.

“[Offenses] know he’s one of the star players on the defensive line,” Hoyett said. “Everybody wants to scheme for him, try to run away from him. It opens things up for Gerri, me, Sweat, any other backers that come in. He’s done a fantastic job just with the double teams. He doesn’t care about that. He plays hard and he still makes plays.”

The parallels between what Williams and Simmons do are easy to see, and the similarities between their styles and the identity of the team is doubly so. They’re succeeding through their physicality, a blue-collar approach that could hardly be more appropriate for MSU. The key, of course, is having talented teammates surrounding them, players with the ability to take advantage of the things their offensive and defensive catalysts set in motion.

Mullen is respected for his spread offense, but by another definition, he’s become a spread team on both sides of the ball. MSU isn’t just spreading out in terms of using the whole field – they’re spreading out the resources of their opponent.

Grantham was asked about the success his group has had when Simmons and Sweat are lined up next to each other. His answer was about defense, but it’s the same philosophy Mullen employs on offense with Fitzgerald and Williams on the field together.

“Any time you can put good players into a position where you’re next to another good player, it reduces the amount of double teams you get,” Grantham said. “It forces people to one-on-one block you.”

In short, make the other team account for everyone on the other side of the ball. And that’s what MSU has been able to do this year, thanks to the oft-unheralded efforts of Williams and Simmons. Does it bother the two at the center of it all to be the grinders instead of getting the glory? Williams answered for them both.

“No,” he said. “I like to win. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

In this new era of physical domination, that’s all that matters.

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