Sometimes, a game doesn't have to be good to be entertaining. Sometimes, it just needs a team with nothing to lose and a stubborn determination not to do so, and a strange confluence of events. That was the 2013 edition of the Egg Bowl -- not the best game you'll ever see, but one of the more entertaining contests of the season.
It was a game that featured practically everything -- except, for the most part, crisp play. Robert Nkemdiche played running back, carrying the ball four times for 21 yards, though 18 of those yards came on a single play. Ole Miss' first touchdown came on a punt that was blocked in the end zone after a low snap. Dak Prescott, who was supposed to miss the game due to an injury, came in to play in the fourth quarter after the already sluggish offense being led by Damian Williams struggled even more.
But the play being less than crisp: The teams combined for 559 yards in regulation, and committed five turnovers before overtime -- including two on a single play, when Richie Brown intercepted Bo Wallace's throw deep in Ole Miss territory, then promptly fumbled it back to the Rebels, turning a 2nd-and-12 into a first down for Ole Miss. (Not that it made a great deal of difference; Wallace soon threw another interception to set up Mississippi State's touchdown.)
Things seemed to change when Prescott came in with his team down 10-7. Not in the way of an immediate explosion of points, but in the sense that the offense seemed to find its sea legs. Slowly at first, and then more and more as time when by. Eventually, they managed to drive well enough to get an Evan Sobiesk 36-yard field goal. They drove again with a few seconds left to set up a 39-yard attempt -- that missed.
Then, in overtime, came the boldest decision of all: on fourth down with the ball on his own 3-yard line, Dan Mullen decided to go for it. Everything in college football overtime conventional wisdom says to kick the field goal and avoid allowing the other team to win with its own kick. But Mississippi State defied the wisdom, and the once-injured Prescott plunged into the end zone for the go ahead touchdown.
Bo Wallace seemed to maybe have his own game-defining drive in him, taking off toward the goal line in the second overtime -- only to fumble into the end zone, where Mississippi State recovered it to end the game.
The win moves Dan Mullen's record to 4-1 in the Egg Bowl, a game that he has sometimes seemed to put at the center of his program's goals. ("The School Up North," "This is our state," etc.) And it propels the Bulldogs into a bowl of the postseason variety for the fourth straight season, a tangible sign of progress for Mullen in the long view -- no Mississippi State coach has done that before, though it doesn't mean quite as much now as it once did. But even another postseason berth can't overcome the feeling that his rebuilding job has leveled off. If this becomes a spark for a big season in 2014, a lot of that talk will disappear.
Ole Miss, of course, also goes to a bowl. And there were some good signs for Hugh Freeze this season as well, including the upset against LSU. But the two straight losses to end the season have to leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of Ole Miss fans, especially with the loss Thursday assuring that they end up in a tie for fifth in the SEC West (and technically in sixth place if you apply the tiebreaker). But a win in the bowl will mark the eighth victory in a season for the first time since 2009, which is also tangible progress.
To the extent that the Egg Bowl is a battle prove which coach has done a better job at rebuilding, though, score this edition of the rivalry as another round for Mullen. It wasn't the best game Mississippi State has played, but the entertainment value of the win is probably even greater for Mullen and his team than it was for those of us who watched it Thursday night.