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Dispatch 2013 Liberty Bowl coverage - Game Day - Will Mississippi State win its third bowl game in four years?




Matt Stevens


MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Good afternoon to all the readers of the pre-game edition as The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog prepares to give you early coverage of Mississippi State's fourth straight bowl game as MSU (6-6) prepares to face Conference USA champion Rice (10-3) for a 3 p.m. kickoff on ESPN.  




NOTE: Be sure to bookmark this page as we'll continue to update this post throughout until kickoff as news continues to flow out about pre-game news for either team tonight. 




(11 a.m. UPDATE) - We're a few hours away from kickoff in Jacksonville but you know how we do this by now, The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog is going to review all the material we've assembled for you this week in our print edition.  




DEC. 31, 2013 - MSU football feature - MSU offensive coordinator has ties with Rice and current Rice staff - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=30029 




DEC. 31, 2013 - MSU football feature - MSU defensive coordinator promoting collective approach with defensive staff - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=30024 




DEC. 30, 2013 - MSU football feature - MSU ready for physical battle vs. Conference USA's Rice - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=30017#ixzz2p4uzfyzh 




DEC. 28, 2013 - Rice football feature - Rice Owls among nation's top academic schools having success in big-time college football - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=29994#ixzz2p4vAJByx 




DEC. 27, 2013 - Rice football feature - QB Taylor McHargue perfect leader for Rice's profile - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=29960 




DEC. 21, 2013 - MSU football feature - RB LaDarius Perkins ready to lead in final game at Liberty Bowl - http://cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=29829#ixzz2p4vhT6mF 




- Now we'll try to answer some game day questions for you - the loyal reader of The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog  




1. Can Mississippi State slow down the Rice rushing attack?  


Rice leads C-USA in rushing yards per game by 33 yards over the next highest team (Middle Tennessee State). Rice is seventh in the country in time of possession, which its players and coaches said is a major issue why it is averaging 4.5 yards per play against the past six schools -- Baylor, Northwestern, Kansas twice, Texas A&M, and Purdue -- they've faced from Bowl Championship Series conferences.  




2. Who replaces Nickoe Whitley at free safety for Mississippi State?  


MSU coach Dan Mullen confirmed earlier in the month senior safety Nickoe Whitley was scheduled for season-ending surgery this week that will force him to miss the bowl game. Instead of having surgery earlier so he'd be healthier for the NFL combine, Whitley opted to postpone the procedure to help the team, which lost starting strong safety Jay Hughes to an Achilles' injury in the season opener against Oklahoma State.  


"He said, 'I'm not giving up on the team. I'm going to play it out, and I'll (have surgery) after the last regular-season game,' " Mullen said. 


The pre-game depth chart says redshirt freshman Deontay Evans will get the start at safety but East Mississippi Community College transfer Justin Cox has been working in that position with the first-team defense in the open practices before MSU left for Memphis.  




3. How does the offense look with a fully healthy Dak Prescott at quarterback? 


Dak Prescott will be making his first bowl game start at quarterback and in the eyes of Rice head coach David Bailiff, he is the emotional leader of the entire team.  


"I was watching the Egg Bowl game as a football fan on Thanksgiving and you could see but specifically hear that stadium completely change the minute that young man stepped off the sideline," Bailiff said. "Dak Prescott is somebody that we have to be aware of on every snap of this football game. That's just obvious and our kids realize who he can change a game." 


Prescott engineered a fourth quarter comeback for the ages in the 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 in Southeastern Conference) that culminated with a dramatic three-yard plunge on his classic draw play on fourth down. Prescott, who had sat out the last two games with severe nerve damage to his left shoulder, finished the game with 144 total yards in the final 11 minutes and overtime. Prescott was 11 of 20 for 115 yards passing and the game-winning touchdown run.  


"We're just trying to get locked in to our game plan because we understand there's a lot of distractions involved in this but Memphis has been a lot of fun," Prescott said. "I can tell you this, Memphis has some of the best food in the country and I'm enjoying some of the joints." 


Mullen said Prescott is completely healthy after suffering a nerve injury to this throwing arm in the final month of the season but has been full active in practices at Rhodes College in Memphis.  


"At this time of year, when you've been playing for five straight months now, he's as 100 percent as you're going to get," Mullen said.  




4. Can Rice make it back-to-back Conference USA winners in the Liberty Bowl 


Rice (10-3) has a chance to clinch the first 11-win season in school history. The Owls' Liberty Bowl berth caps a remarkable rise for a school better known for its academic prowess. Rice now is returning to the site where the program began its turnaround. After a 14-10 loss to Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last year dropped the Owls' record to 1-5, cornerback Phillip Gaines gave an emotional speech. Rice has won 16 of 20 games since. 


"Something had to be said," Gaines said. "We had to realize that we can't keep doing the same stuff every week and expect a different result. I just challenged everybody to kind of man up and take responsibility of our team. That's what we did."  


The Owls beat Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship game last month for their first outright league title of any sort since winning the Southwest Conference crown in 1957. Rice has a chance to win bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever. 


Rice leads Conference USA and ranks 16th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 240.2 yards rushing per game. Charles Ross has rushed for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns. Rice showed it could run against an SEC opponent by rushing for 306 yards in a season-opening 52-31 loss to Texas A&M. 




5. How partisan toward the maroon and white will the Liberty Bowl be in terms of fan attendance?  


Mississippi State isn't expected to bring as many fans as it did in 2007. The last number of tickets sold being given out by the school's administration is 16,560 tickets as of Dec. 19, when the school's ticket office closed for the holidays. Cowbells will be allowed inside the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for the Mississippi State football team's game against Rice on New Year's Eve. MSU fans will be allowed to ring their cowbells in accordance to Southeastern Conference rules for home games at Davis Wade Stadium.  


"(Dan Mullen) has promised me they are going to ring responsibly," Bailiff said. "We've been piping in the cowbells. We've been piping in the band. It is going to be a not home crowd feel. We have a bunch of fabulous fans that have made the trip, but we've done everything we can to prepare our football team for a road game." 


Presidents and chancellors of SEC schools voted to continue the cowbell compromise provision established three years ago.  


The policy on artificial noisemakers allows fans to use cowbells at Scott Field only during pregame, halftime, between quarters, timeouts, after scoring plays, and during possession changes. Mullen expects another strong crowd today with cowbells. 


"Our fans, when we've asked them to come out and do things before, they've been able to come through for us," Mullen said. "I certainly hope we have a lot of traffic heading over the state line today. I know there are a lot of Mississippi State people in this community here." 




All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.



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