Liberty Bowl Primer: Rice vs Mississippi State
By Veair Green
The 55th Liberty Bowl can easily be called the “Riding High, Feel Good” Bowl. Rice and Mississippi State both enter this game riding emotional highs into Memphis. The Conference USA champs have won nine of their last 10 games and dominated Marshall, 41-24, to win their first conference title in 56 years.
If any team knows what that feeling is like it would be the Bulldogs. Entering the game with a losing record (5-6), Mississippi State defeated rival Ole Miss, 17-10, in an overtime thriller. The win over “the school up North” made the 'Dawgs bowl eligible and may have saved Dan Mullen’s job.
Win, lose or draw, the biggest winner will be the local economy. In 2007, Mississippi State helped bring a record crowd of more than 63,000 to the Liberty Bowl. Memphis is less than a three hour drive from Starkville, Miss., and many alumni reside in the mid-South. That means more dollars to area businesses and hotels.
Motivation: The Owls want to prove they can play with an SEC team. Despite scoring more points, allowing fewer points and winning more games, they are the heavy underdog. Plus, there's this little thing called history on Rice’s mind. With a win in the Liberty Bowl, Rice can get to 11 victories for the first time ever.
If You've Never Seen Them: On paper, Dan Bailiff’s team looks like an SEC squad. They depend on the running game and play good defense. Charles Ross is a beast on the ground and has a nose for the end zone. The all-conference running back ran for 1,292 yards and 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor McHargue isn’t asked to win the game as much as manage it, avoid turnovers and feed favorite target Jordan Taylor. Cornerbacks Philip Gaines and Bryce Callahan can make plays on the ball (a combined seven interceptions and 17 pass breakups). Gaines is a first-team All-C-USA performer as he only allowed 13 receptions in 40 targeted throws. Don’t miss the first quarter because Rice loves to start fast, outscoring their opponents 125-44 in the first 12 minutes.
Weakness: Ross carries the offense and he does it well, but the passing game is not a big threat. With the Bulldogs loading the box to stop Ross, McHargue will have to make big plays down the field. The Rice signal-caller averaged 173 yards per game and tossed 17 touchdowns. To combat this weakness, running back Luke Turner will enter the game as a Wildcat quarterback and provide a spark in the passing game.
Motivation: This has nothing to do X’s and O’s or pep talks. It’s all about the bell! Noisemakers are allowed in Memphis and you know what that means. Bulldogs fans will have the cow bells out in full force despite a $25,000 fine from the SEC earlier this month. Rice head coach David Bailiff feels they will be ready for the fans in the stands. "I think we have a good plan for the cowbells," Bailiff said. "We've got the CDs of the cowbells going off at practice. We're looking forward to it." I’m sure the Bulldogs fans will be hydrated and ready to pump up their 'Dawgs.
If You've Never Seen Them: If you have ever watched a Bulldogs offense, chances are this team will look familiar. Their playing style and team personnel seems like it never changes. Run the ball, stop the run on your way to the quarterback and don’t depend on your signal caller to win the game. Watch out for playmaker Jameon Lewis, who is dangerous with the ball in his hands and can make people miss. The offensive line for Mississippi State has a distinct size advantage over Rice’s defensive line and they may be able to open up holes for running back Ladarius Perkins and Josh Robinson. If Dak Prescott doesn’t produce, look for freshman Damian Williams to take over at quarterback.
Weakness: Inconsistent quarterback play is the always a thorn in this team’s side. With Tyler Russell injured since August, Prescott shouldered the load. He leads the team in rushing, but passing isn’t Prescott’s forte. If Rice can score early and put the pressure on Mississippi State, they will have a great chance to exploit this weakness. On defense, the Bulldogs will be without their star. Safety Nickoe Whitley forced a game-clinching fumble in the Egg Bowl, but won’t be around for his final bowl game due to knee surgery. Someone will have to fill his shoes.
Las Vegas Hilton Line: MSU -7.