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Egg Bowl Week arrives as Mullen, Fitzgerald preview matchup

Kickoff for State and Ole Miss is 6:30 p.m. CT Thanksgiving live on ESPN.

Posted: Nov. 20, 2017 9:56 PM
Updated: Nov. 20, 2017 10:54 PM

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – Egg Bowl week has arrived in Starkville as Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald met with members of the media on Monday afternoon to preview the 114th edition of the rivalry game.

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Kickoff for State and Ole Miss is 6:30 p.m. CT Thanksgiving live on ESPN. Below are quotes from the press conference.

Head Coach Dan Mullen
November 20, 2017

Opening statement…

“Obviously an exciting week. Rivalry week is always a really exciting time for everybody. I know it’s such a big game for everybody in the state of Mississippi. It’s a lot of fun involved in this game, for us and our players. Also though, we have senior night coming up. Even though we don’t have a huge senior class, look at what these guys have been through, the highs and lows in their career. They came in early in their career as a team that’s competing as the No. 1 team in the country and trying to compete for a National Championship. They also dealt with some adversity in going through a rougher season last year. The leadership that these seniors have had and the stuff that they’ve gone through to put the program back where we expect it to be this season as a top-15 program nationally is really, really special for what these guys have been able to accomplish. Each of them has a great story. If you look at every one of the seniors individually and what they’ve accomplished, they’ve done an awful lot for our football program. Usually I’m always making sure we have a great, exciting environment and making sure to encourage our fans to show up and create that home-field advantage for us. I don’t think I have to do that this week. I think they’ll be pretty excited about this game; they usually are. We expect a great environment. We expect a fun day. Playing the game on Thanksgiving night is such a cool deal. I remember the game watching football when I was younger, being played on Thanksgiving night.”

On senior long snapper Hunter Bradley…

“As a long snapper, he’s a very unheralded guy. You don’t talk about the long snapper until he does something wrong or he’s not there. That’s when you notice. For Hunter to come back for his sixth year, having gone through several knee injuries, he loves the program. He’s probably like a lot of guys, though. I know he loves the program and loves playing. Pushing off the real world for another year is not a bad deal. It’s not a bad deal being a football player on scholarship at Mississippi State. Life could be a lot worse for you. He was smart. Funny story actually, he did a good job negotiating academics with me through last season’s offseason program. He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been through five of them already. I’m tough, but I’m probably not going to get a lot bigger, faster, stronger. I got some academic things to take care of. I set my own program.’ We did that for him. He had a great opportunity to come back and get a Master’s degree and finish up in school. It’s a unique story, but he’s been a huge part of our team and program for the last six years now.”

On the challenges provided by Ole Miss junior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu…

“I see them executing still at a high level. He throws the ball well. One of the things, being a junior college player, coming in instead of saying, ‘Hey, we’ve had to go with a true freshman as the backup quarterback,’ he played college football before getting there. He had some experience and obviously did a great job at winning out to be the No. 2 guy on the team. He’s got a bunch of experience playing. I think they have very similar styles in what they do. He can beat you with his legs running the ball. He may even be more athletic than Shea [Patterson], even though Shea was really athletic. I think Shea’s a really athletic guy. I remember watching him in high school and then watching him play and play against us last year. He’s a lot more athletic than he was on high school film as a dynamic playmaker. Jordan can do the same things for them. He throws the ball, understands their offense, makes the reads but is also very dangerous. He can beat you, not just with quarterback runs, but the ones that are more dangerous are the extending of plays and scrambling. I think those are the ones and his ability to improvise make him even more dangerous.”

On how tough it is to end the schedule playing three SEC games in a 12-day span…

“I think obviously it is. How the schedule played out, they didn’t even have to do that; they had a non-conference game as one of those games. It’s always a challenge, both physically and mentally. It’s a mental grind to prepare for games against SEC West teams, which are always battles. You look at the difference from top to bottom in the West – it’s not a lot. If you don’t bring on your A-game, you’re going to be in trouble every single week. To keep that focus and that grind at the end of the season is huge at the end of the season, and that makes it tricky. We practiced last night. The schedule right now, it’s a Monday press conference with a Tuesday practice, but tomorrow’s like a regular Wednesday. Wednesday’s a half-Thursday, half-Friday. It’s a weird deal, so you kind of get all out of whack as the coaches and the players. It’s a plan we’ve used in the past. Our guys know it. Coaches know it. I love the attitude our guys have and they approach they’ve taken and how they came out last night. They came out ready to go with practice last night.”

On if the short turnaround between games changes the mentality…

“It doesn’t. You accelerate everything. Unfortunately, I usually like to enjoy a win on a Saturday. We didn’t. We enjoyed it; Coach Cohen was gracious enough to have the planes available for the coaches to fly home. He flew home with us, so we enjoyed our plane ride home together. We had a good time on that. The second you got off the plane, it became Sunday morning, where the game’s behind us and we have to get grinding. We’ve got to get back to work and wrap this game up and get ahead to the next game. Besides that, I think everybody was ready for it. It’s just that mindset. That was a hard-fought win, a well-deserved win. Hopefully we’ll get a win on Thursday, and we’ll try to enjoy them both on Friday and Saturday and take a little combo 48-hour victory window this coming weekend to make up for what we missed last Saturday night.”

On Ole Miss rivalry and how the emphasis on the rivalry has shifted…

“When I got here, I think that was a big point with a lot of our fans, that rivalry game. We built off that rivalry game and created a lot of excitement. Now, we’re looking to try and have our third nine-win season in four years. There were four before we got here. As I look at it right now, we’ve changed a little bit of the image profile. We’ve just changed the program around. We’re a nationally-prominent program with the expectation of being a top-15, top-20 team every single year. I don’t want to belittle it; this is still the biggest game of the year for us, within our program and within our fan base. I don’t want to downplay it. But we’ve also elevated the level of our program to a little bit more national prominence, and it’s not all about one game now. We’re trying to compete for championships in the SEC and national championships as a program. That rise in prominence of the program has maybe brought other attentions, not just this one attention. It hasn’t dropped; I just think everything around it in the program has raised up. It doesn’t seem like it’s an all-or-nothing game.”

On comparing the Ole Miss defense from last year to this year…

“They’re different schematically. They’ve got different players. There’s not a whole lot you can take from last year’s game. They have a different head coach, different offensive coordinator, different defensive coordinator. They have a whole new operation that you’re going against. I don’t really put a lot into last year’s game. When you play this rivalry games, records, last year’s game, what happened the year before or two years before, none of that really holds a lot of weight for this one.”

On the health of seniors Dez Harris, Donald Gray and other injured Bulldogs…

“I don’t expect either of those two guys to be back this week (Dez and Donald). We should get Brandon Bryant; we’re hoping to have him back and Keith Mixon back. They say there’s an outside chance Gabe Myles could be back for this game as well, so that’d be big for us. Both Donald and Dez will not be back for this game. Dez will be questionable for the bowl; Donald’s going to have surgery and will be done.”

On the game plan for celebrating Thanksgiving…

“I can’t speak for everybody. So Tuesday night of this week, which is kind of a half-Wednesday, half-Thursday, we’ll have a Thanksgiving family dinner. Coaches’ families will come with all the players after practice. We’ll have that family dinner, a Thanksgiving dinner here at our facility. Wednesday is pregame. Thursday is game day. That doesn’t change. We’ll finish up after the game Thursday night, hopefully with big smiles on our face and a nice centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner at my Thanksgiving table on Friday. The players will be off for the weekend. We’ll get everybody back in Sunday night to kind of get ready for exams and go through a bowl schedule of what we’re looking at with what bowl games might be possible and how the schedule will play out for those. Everyone will have that time off to go spend family time. My brother and his family and my dad are coming in. We’ll have a really nice Thanksgiving dinner. Friday I think I’m ringing the Salvation Army bells Friday morning, so at 9 a.m. you can come on out to Kroger. We’ll come in as a staff and wrap-up that game Friday morning and put that behind us. Everyone will go and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll come back in Sunday and go through a recruiting schedule for the week. We’ll go Sunday night and have a team meeting. Those are my holiday plans. Probably a lot of football. I’ve got to find time to work out, because I will eat a lot. Recruiting season usually is not the best time of year either for coaches; I don’t want to hurt it too bad.”

On the extent of senior Dez Harris’ injury…

“Dez had a thigh bruise. It’s one of those deals where he had a thigh bruise, it wouldn’t stop swelling and he had to go into the hospital. With the amount of bruising, it turned into a rhabdomyolysis situation, where you see a lot of dehydration with the kidney processing stuff. It went on and he still had swelling in the leg, which was dangerous. He was in the hospital at the time and did a great job. It’s just going to be an extended period of time until he gets the clear, medically, with his body processing everything. We’ve had a couple guys deal with those in the past; usually it’s summer heat-related injury. When Dan [Jacobi] told me that, I knew it was going to be a problem.”

On Ole Miss Interim Head Coach Matt Luke’s elevated status…

“I think their guys play hard. They’re doing fairly well. It doesn’t seem like they’re a team that’s distracted by all the different issues around their program right now. Obviously that’s not an easy situation to be in as a coach, with a lot of uncertainty. From what I’ve seen, it really hasn’t been a distraction for them. They’ve gone out, the guys play hard every week and they compete every week. Without knowing the ins and outs of what’s going on day-to-day within their program, it seems like he’s doing a pretty good job of handling the situation.”

On embracing the emotions of the Egg Bowl…

“I want them to embrace it. I don’t have to worry about it; they do. It’s not another game. Rivalry games, they’re just not. It’s an important game for everybody. I don’t even have to bring it up. They know. We treat everything a little differently. One of the fun parts about the game being on Thursday is it makes it unique in its own way that way. There’s a lot of unique things about this game, and I think everybody in our program embraces it. I mean everybody in our program. I’m not just talking about the players or the coaches, the trainers or everybody in this building. I’m talking about everybody in the Bryan Building embraces it. Everyone in the President’s Office certainly embraces it. It’s a big game for Mississippi State people. It’s a big game for their people as well. Just the bragging rights within the state – it means a lot. That’s what makes rivalry games so fun and what makes college football so special. That’s what fun. It makes it a fun weekend around the country.”

On the extent of the rivalry off the field…

“I don’t see that. I think there’s certain distraction things that people outside of the programs have brought on. I don’t think within the teams that has a huge effect. You’re talking about guys on the team that played against each other in high school and knew each other through recruiting in high school and growing up in the rivalry. I think that’s what sticks to me, the bragging rights to win the game on the field. That’s probably a lot more for all the chat lines – is that what you call it? Message boards. Is that old? With these rivalries, there might be one where you can call and talk about all the issues and problems, where all the fans go and vent. I think that’s much more of a passion of the fans off the field, that sort of stuff, more than the game itself.”

Jr. QB Nick Fitzgerald

On the team’s most recent practices…

“There’s not a lot of time to prepare so obviously there’s not a lot of time to dwell on the game and celebrate that. [We] had our victory meal last night. [We] had our champions meeting last night. We got to see who graded out champions. Then last night was just straight to a new game plan and new game. But we came out last night after a game that I felt we had a lot of energy. I felt we came out and practiced really well. There wasn’t really anyone jogging around. It was full speed and all business.”

On the running game…

“I think we had a really good blocking game. Our offensive line really opened up a lot of holes. They’re driving guys three-four yards off the ball. They had some misfits, just guys reading plays wrong so that helped out a lot too.”

On Ole Miss’ defense…

“I’m just going by what I look at, stuff from games. I haven’t started watching full games yet. I’ll start doing that a little bit tonight and keep going with that. From what I’ve seen, they’re a pretty good defense. They run a lot of different sets and different looks. So you’ve got to be prepared for the multiple looks. The multiple blitzes and plays they’re going to throw at you. There are some similarities [to Ole Miss’ defense last season], but there are definitely a lot of differences.”

On the importance of the Egg Bowl…

“It’s a rivalry game. It’s a game that we’ve got to win. We want to keep getting better and keep going to a bowl. On top of it being a rivalry game, it’s an SEC game that we have to win to continue on and finish out strong and get a good bowl game. It’s huge. Like I’ve said before, if you’re doing badly in a season, that’s a win. And if you’re having a really good season and you lose the Egg Bowl, some people think the whole season was a loss. There’s animosity and nastiness. It’s a big rivalry and big game. But at the end it’s an SEC game that we have to win.”

On his first impression of the Egg Bowl…

“My official visit was the Egg Bowl when [former Ole Miss QB] Bo Wallace fumbled in the endzone. Then we came back and won it. That was really my first taste of it and that was a good one to come to. Since then, I’ve been around people who have been around the program a long time and they’ve talked about it, being at a few of the games. But it started out with my official visit.”

On the nature of the rivalry…

“Once you step on campus here, it’s a big rivalry. It’s a nasty game. We don’t even like to use the name of their school. So you can kind of tell from the jump that we don’t like each other. But I don’t think it takes very much for him to understand that it’s a rivalry game.”

On focusing the team on the game…

“It’s something that we look forward to every year. We have a countdown clock in the locker room that counts down every year until the foot hits the ball. It’s a huge game. A lot of stuff goes on off the field and a lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes. With all that, you can’t really bother yourself with it. You can’t really focus on that off the field stuff. It’s a big game and a short week. It’s going to be a tough turnaround. We just have to stay focused and come prepared and do our thing and go out and play.”

On the team’s mindset this season compared to last season…

“It’s huge. Last year we were getting that fifth win. We were just trying our best to make it to a bowl if we can. Really it was just kind of a big pride game last year. We’ve got to finish out the season strong. This year’s a different story. I mean it’s a rivalry game so it’s going to be nasty and mean. We’re just trying to get to a better bowl as well. It’s an SEC team that we need to beat so that we can finish positive.”

On his expectations for the Egg Bowl…

“Once you’re playing, once you’re on the field, it’s just another game. The atmosphere is going to be crazy. It’s going to be wild. It’s going to be loud. It’s a home game so it’s great to have a crazy fan base. It’s going to be rocking. But once you’re out there and playing, it’s just another game.”

On junior running back Aeris Williams…

“I think [Aeris] is a very talented running back with a very good offensive line that’s opened up a lot of holes that. That’s opened up a bunch of holes for both of us to run through. When he gets the ball, he’s running downhill. He’s not going to get knocked back. Our offensive line has been doing so well. Our blocking has been putting a lot of stress on defenders. They have to get out of their comfortability or their read. They try to stop him and then that’s when I get pulls and am able to go get a lot of yards. All of the credit goes to our offensive line and then to Aeris running hard and opening it up for both of us.”

On the first time he held the Egg Bowl trophy…

“That would be the day, the next day, that Sunday after the [2013] Egg Bowl when I came back to breakfast before I left town to go back to Georgia. We got to have the trophy with us that morning so I got to hold it. It was a really cool experience seeing how we fought and won it the night before. I got to see the atmosphere the night before, too. So I understood the brevity of the situation and how good it was to have that trophy.”

On the team Thanksgiving dinner…

“You’ve got a hundred brothers and some sisters and everyone else working here eating. It’s a family environment like it always has been. It’s a holiday about coming together, about giving thanks for what we have. We have a lot to be thankful for. It’s always good to have a good meal and sit down with your teammates and just enjoy it.”

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