November 29, 2013 10:32:43 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- At the end of his postgame media conference, Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen asked reporters who forced the final fumble that ended the 2013 Battle for the Golden Egg.
When he received the answer, the Bulldogs' fifth-year coach felt silly for needing to ask who caused such a crucial turnover that helped preserve his team's 17-10 overtime victory against Ole Miss.
"I'm going to tell you what, what a long way that young man has come from," Mullen said. "Talk about a guy that has ups and downs in his career and life but believes in the program. That's Nickoe Whitley."
In a rivalry game that has been played 110 times, Whitley's strip of quarterback Bo Wallace became a play that will be talked about for years to come. With Wallace two steps from scoring a touchdown that could have helped tie the game, Whitley forced a game-saving fumble just like the one he caused Saturday that allowed MSU to beat Arkansas 24-17 in overtime in Little Rock, Ark.
"In some of our most memorable wins here, there's Nickoe Whitley creating a turnover to ensure we win the game," Mullen said. "He won the Georgia game here (in 2010) and completely turned our program around. He beat Arkansas, beats the School Up North so he's a special player in my book."
The fumble on Thanksgiving night in Whitley's final home game had the Ole Miss coaches screaming from their coaching box because they were convinced the Rebels would be an extra point away from going to a second overtime.
"I couldn't see it, but the coaches up top were screaming like he was scoring," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "I'm not sure what happened."
MSU junior cornerback Jamerson Love recovered the loose ball in the end zone moments before bedlam erupted at Davis Wade Stadium.
"It's a blur," Wallace said. "I kind of relaxed, I guess. I don't know. It opened up and I saw it and made a cut. I thought I was in there. It's the craziest thing that's ever happened to me. It's a feeling I've never felt before. It's like your heart is ripped out, especially in this game."
Whitley, who also had a highlight reel one-handed interception on Ole Miss' first possession, has built his career on being around the football when turnovers occur. The interception was Whitley's fifth of the season and the 15th of his career, which is the most among all active Football Bowl Subdivision players. He is one interception behind Walt Harris (1992-95) and Johnthan Banks (2009-12) for the most in program history.
MSU (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) entered the game believing it could force turnovers if its front seven could pressure Wallace. Therefore, MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins dialed up blitzes to confuse the quarterback. Wallace was 26 of 40 for 182 yards and three interceptions.
"We just felt like we could get in (Wallace's) head, and we did that all night," MSU's Beniquez Brown said. "Geoff Collins is one of the best coordinators in the country. We have awesome teammates and an awesome program we're building. Everybody believes."
Before Thanksgiving night in Starkville, Wallace never had had more than three turnovers in a game, and never had had more than two this season. The former East Mississippi Community College transfer surrendered the football four times against MSU, and each time Freeze classified the turnovers as mental errors and "bad decisions."
"I never want to talk negatively about any of our kids, but everybody watched the game and knows he didn't have his best game," Freeze said. "In this league, if you turn it over the number of times we did it's going to be difficult to win games."
Wallace countered Freeze's assertion that all of his turnovers were the result of bad decisions.
"One was a tipped ball. That's going to happen," Wallace said. "A ball floated on me. That was one bad decision. He can say what he wants. That was one bad decision. The rest is just football and stuff happens."
Mullen applauded his defense for giving up just three points to Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5). The Rebels' only touchdown came on a blocked punt near the end of the first half. The game marked the first time this season MSU kept a spread offense in check.
"It was awful," Wallace said about his offense's execution. "We were terrible. We are a lot better than what we showed tonight. It was really frustrating. We need to get in and go to work and get ready for a bowl game. We can't do this anymore."
Against the spread offenses of Oklahoma State, Auburn, Bowling Green, and Texas A&M, MSU had allowed an average of 453 yards and 29 points per game. MSU surrendered just 318 yards and three points against Ole Miss.
"Open-field tackling we felt would be a huge part of the game," Mullen said. "It was a unbelievable defensive effort, and with a true freshman quarterback on our end it meant some defensive guys would have to step up and make plays."
Following wide receiver Donte Moncrief's three-touchdown performance in last season's Egg Bowl in Oxford, MSU tried to lock down the senior. The approach worked, as Moncrief had three catches for 24 yards. The Rebels' big-play threat was neutralized thanks to the zone coverages provided by Taveze Calhoun and former West Point High School and EMCC standout Justin Cox.
Calhoun, who said this week he has an older brother and cousins who attended Ole Miss, had a career-high 11 tackles and a personal-best nine solo stops. In the last three games, Calhoun has 16 tackles and three interceptions.
"Moncrief is a great player. We just had to switch up the coverages, show them one thing and give them another," Calhoun said. "I think we were able to give them a lot of disguises. They didn't really know where we were a lot tonight, and I think that helped us in the end."
The only major defensive mistake came on one of its biggest plays as Brown intercepted Wallace inside the Ole Miss 15-yard-line but was stripped by wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. After the play, which resulted in a new set of downs for the Rebels, Brown said he felt "like I was going to puke," but Whitley comforted him by telling him the same thing happened on his first interception. Then the senior safety made Brown's error an afterthought by making an interception.
"He's awesome, and I love Nickoe to death because he's a quiet leader that does everything by example," Brown said. "Turnovers was a major emphasis in the last couple of weeks, and that was done by the senior leaders like Nickoe Whitley demanding we do so."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.