November 29, 2013 10:25:38 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
In his postgame news conference, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen used words like "miraculous" and "divine intervention" after his team's 17-10 overtime victory against Ole Miss on Thursday night in the Battle for the Golden Egg.
Without the proper context, you might have assumed Mullen was applying those superlatives to a number of things that transpired in the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs' come-from-behind victory.
The fact that MSU twice drove the length of the field in the closing minutes after being held to 133 yards (an average of 2.7 yards per play) through three quarters was something of a miracle.
It could be used to describe the final play. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace had sliced the middle of the defense en route to what seemed to be a game-tying touchdown run only to be stripped of the ball at the MSU 3-yard line by Nickoe Whitley. MSU's Jamerson Love recovered the fumble in the end zone to end the game.
But Mullen didn't use those terms in reference to the late-game dramatics. Instead, he was referring to something that happened just before the game.
During pregame warmups, Nashville neuro-surgeon Dr. Allen Sills cleared MSU quarterback Dak Prescott to play. The sophomore had missed the previous two games with nerve damage in his left shoulder.
"(Sills) told me he didn't expect to clear Dak to play. He said, 'I've never seen anything like this before. It must be a miracle. I'm going to clear him to play,' " Mullen said.
Even with Sills' blessing, Mullen was reluctant to insert Prescott into the game and went with freshman Damian Williams, who made his first career start.
But with MSU's season on the brink early in the fourth quarter, Mullen had a change of heart.
With 11 minutes, 15 seconds remaining, Prescott took the field to a thunderous applause. While his first series ended in a punt after just one first down, it became clear Prescott was the best player on the field for most of the fourth quarter. He completed four passes on a 13-play, 59-yard drive, including a critical bullet to a tightly-covered De'Runnya Wilson for an 11-yard gain on third-and-10 that set up Evan Sobiesk's game-tying field goal with 2:21 left.
After the defense stuffed Ole Miss, Prescott drove MSU to set up a game-winning field goal on the final play of regulation, but Sobiesk's kick sailed wide right.
Prescott and the Bulldogs shrugged at the misfortune, taking the opening possession of overtime and scoring on Prescott's 3-yard dive over right guard on fourth-and-1 to score what proved to be the winning touchdown.
The Bulldogs had called a timeout before that run, not to weigh the merits of kicking a field goal, but to determine which fourth-down play to use. Mullen called for a pass. Prescott talked him out of it.
"He said, 'Coach, just give me the ball. I'll score,' " Mullen said. ""It was an easy decision after that."
Said Prescott, "I said, 'We've got Gabe (Jackson) up front. Let me just run it up in there behind that offensive line. We'll be good.' "
While it would be overstating the matter to say Prescott won the game -- much credit must be given to MSU's relentless defense, which held an explosive Ole Miss offense to three points -- there is little question Prescott's presence was a rallying point and provided a shot of confidence when the Bulldogs needed it most.
"This is going to sound crazy, but here we are, we're behind in the fourth quarter, but as soon as I put Dak in, I just knew we were going to win," Mullen said.
For Prescott, Thursday was a crescendo in an emotional month. On Nov. 3, Prescott's mother, Peggy, died after a long battle with colon cancer. Six days later, he played brilliantly in a loss to Texas A&M, but he suffered nerve damage in his left shoulder at the end of the game. He then missed a loss to Alabama and a victory at Arkansas. After consulting with doctors, Mullen was all but certain Prescott wouldn't be available until a postseason bowl game.
As it turns out, Prescott was available in the Egg Bowl. If he wasn't, MSU almost certainly wouldn't have become bowl eligible for the fourth-straight season for the first time in the program's history.
"Before the game, we asked all our players to write a letter to someone about what this game means to them," Mullen said, choking up. "You can ask Dak who he wrote his letter to."
Prescott confirmed he had written his letter to his mom.
"She hated Ole Miss as much as I do," Prescott said. "The thing she loved best was the bowl games, so I'm pretty sure she's liking this."
Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]