Mississippi State College and Mississippi Southern College first played one another in football in 1935. Southern, as it was called then, hosted. State, coached by ex-Army coach Ralph Sasse, defeated Southern, coached by ex-Alabama football captain Pooley Hubert, 27-0.
The two in-state rivals, who face off Saturday in Starkville, have played 29 times since. State has won 14. Southern Miss has won 14. There has been one tie — 10-10 in 1973 — when Bob Tyler coached at State and P.W. Underwood at USM.
It has been a streaky series. State won the first five. At one point, Southern Miss won seven straight and 10 of 12. And now State has won the last five, most recently 34-16 at Hattiesburg in 2015.
State is heavily favored for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff, but to say favorites haven’t always won in this series would be an understatement. For most of those seven straight USM victories in the 1970s and 1980s, State was favored. And when Rockey Felker-coached State defeated Southern Miss 26-23 at Hattiesburg in 1989, USM was the favorite, coming off a huge victory over Florida State and with a guy named Brett Favre playing quarterback.
Not long ago, Felker told me, “I’m not sure people now understand how big that win was for us. That was just huge.”
It was huge mainly because Southern Miss had been so dominant in the series over the preceding dozen years when the teams played annually. For all his success and all the splendid players he coached at State, the late Emory Bellard was, as he might have put it, “bum-fuzzled” by USM. Bellard was 5-2 against LSU, 2-5 against USM. In 1980, the year Bellard and State knocked off Alabama and Bear Bryant 6-3 in Jackson, the Bulldogs were body-slammed by the Golden Eagles 42-14 on State’s homecoming. Bobby Collins (MSU Class of 1954) was probably the only State alum who enjoyed that homecoming.
I have seen all the State-USM games since 1964. That was when the clock at Scott Field malfunctioned almost as much as the Southern offense. State won 48-7 and the second quarter lasted more than an hour due to the faulty clock. For Southern fans, it seemed an eternity.
Most of the games have been much more competitive. Here are my five most memorable games of the series:
▪ Nov. 7, 1981, USM 7, Mississippi State 6. Both teams were nationally ranked and featured much future NFL talent when they played before more than 64,000 on a gorgeous day at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The late, great Orley Hood referred to this one as the “limp off” game because players from both teams limped off the field on seemingly every play. State corralled Collier for the most part, but USM’s defense, led by the un-blockable Jerold Baylis, was equally salty. A fumbled punt proved the difference.
▪ Sept. 9, 1989, Mississippi State 26, USM 23. USM’s Roberts Stadium was packed. Heavily favored USM, led by Brett Favre, was ranked No. 18 and coming off a huge victory over Florida State. The Eagles had won three straight over State and 10 of the last 12. But the Bulldogs got this one and State fans stayed, cheered and clanged their cowbells for a good 30 minutes after the game ended.
▪ Oct. 7, 1978, USM 22, Mississippi State 17. State led this one at Hattiesburg 17-0 before Collins inserted a walk-on running back named Sammy Winder into the game. It was Winder’s coming out party. He ran through tackler after tackler, leading USM to 22 straight points and the victory.
▪ Oct. 24, 1970, Mississippi State 51, USM 15. Competitive, no. Memorable, yes. USM had beaten No. 4 Ole Miss 30-14 the week before. On Thursday night, two nights before the State game, USM had an on-campus celebration of the Ole Miss victory when they perhaps should have been thinking about what was to happen in less than 48 hours in Starkville. In retrospect, the outcome was utterly predictable. State wrapped it up in maroon and white from start to finish.
▪ Sept. 20, 1986: USM 28, Mississippi State 24. State led 24-21 with under four minutes remaining when USM got the ball at its own 2-yard-line. The late Keith Daniels, USM’s offensive coordinator at the time, called all 18 plays of the drive that ended with Shelton Gandy scoring the winning touchdown. Afterward, an emotionally drained Daniels sobbed as he talked about the winning drive, which really was one of the best these eyes ever witnessed.