Published 12:00 am Friday, January 4, 2008
By Angie Ledbetter
You could call it the Liberty Bowl or the Cowbell Bowl. It all started back in November when Mississippi State University defeated The University of Mississippi 17-14 in the 2007 Egg Bowl for a chance to play in a post season bowl game–its first since the 2000 Independence Bowl.
After a slow game, Mississippi State defeated the University of Central Florida 10-3. Batesville native Derek Pegues was chosen the game’s MVP (most valuable player) and declared the Defensive Player of the Game.
Pegues intercepted two passes and the Bulldogs turned one into a field goal. Pegues brought the ball back to the six-yard line where he was tackled.
The Bulldogs accepted the invitation to play in the 49th AutoZone Liberty Bowl on December 29 in Memphis. This was the third time that the Mississippi State Bulldogs played in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
It was very obvious by the 63,816 present who had the best fan support. Whether it was driving to the game, walking to the stadium, or walking on the field, maroon and white could be seen and cowbells heard for miles.
The Mississippi State fans did not mind the long drive to support their football team. They showed up in record breaking numbers.
The attendance broke the previous record of 61,497 in 1991 when they played Air Force. One could guess that about 90 percent of the fans at the game were Bulldog fans. It was hard to pick out a University of Central Florida fan unless they were on the field or in the band.
And if they thought that they were going to be heard, they were wrong! The Bulldog fans were so loud that ones on the sideline could barely hear each other talking. The cowbells were heard from morning to late night when the press conference was officially over. From very small children to older adults, the cowbells were ringing in their hands.
It was easy to get the cowbells in the gate when Liberty Bowl executive Steve Erhardt officially encouraged the fans to bring on the cowbells.
It had been a long four years coming for this Bulldog team who had been under the leadership of Sylvester Croom, who was hired while an assistant on the Green Bay Packers NFL team.
It had been 25 years since Croom even walked on the field at the Liberty Bowl stadium. That game 25 years ago meant a lot to Croom and still holds a very emotional place in his heart. The 1982 game was when Alabama defeated Illinois 21-15 and Head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant coached his last football game.
Croom was an assistant to Bryant on that day. Five days later, Bryant passed away.
“It was a very sentimental game to me,” said Croom. “So I was honored that the first bowl game I got to go to as a head coach was the Liberty Bowl.”
The game was by no means a pretty game or a high scoring game. It was a defensive battle until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter.
Central Florida scored first on a Michael Torres 45-yard field goal in the second quarter with 11:49 on the clock. Then Mississippi State’s Adam Carlson kicked a 22-yard field goal with 6:02 left in the second quarter to tie the game after Pegues’ interception.
That score held until the fourth quarter. With 1:54 left in the game, Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon scored a one-yard touchdown, following Keith Fitzhugh’s interception. Carlson’s PAT was good to clinch the 10-3 victory for the Bull Dogs.
But it was not the offense that was alive throughout the game. It was all defense.
Batesville native and former South Panola standout Pegues was credited for the defensive battle in the game. Pegues, a free safety, had two interceptions in the first half of the game. He also had four solo tackles, two punt returns for five yards and one kick return for 14 yards.
Another familiar face on the Mississippi State football team in the Liberty Bowl was No. 6 Demario Bobo. Bobo, another former South Panola standout, played free safety.
A big plus in the 2007 Liberty Bowl game was the fact the Bulldog defense was able to keep Central Florida’s running back Kevin Smith from breaking former Oklahoma State standout Barry Sanders from a single season rushing record of 2,628 yards.
Smith entered the game needing only 181 yards to break the record. He rushed for only 119 yards on 35 carries.
“Stop talking about the record,” said Smith bluntly in the postgame press conference. “I don’t want to talk about the record. We didn’t do our job tonight and it was obvious Mississippi State’s team did a good job. That’s it.”
Smith said the Bulldog defense was playing faster than they were blocking.
Mississippi State senior defensive lineman Titus Brown said the Bulldogs had made it their mission to keep Smith from breaking the record against them.
Mississippi State finished the game with a total offense of 199 yards. Central Florida had 219 yards.
In the postgame press conference, Croom said, “To some people, we might have been struggling, but we weren’t struggling. That’s just Mississippi State football.”
Croom said the Bulldogs found a way to win in the course of the season and in the last two games.
“I think that is what has helped us evolve toward being a championship program. I think that’s a step you have to take, learning how to win. There’ll be times when we’ll be more explosive on offense.”
Croom talked about the fans.
“It was an awesome feeling when I walked out on the field and saw all of the maroon and heard all of the cow bells,” said Croom. “It was far better than any home game.”
Pegues spoke about the two interceptions.
“It’s big. I was disappointed. I didn’t think that I had the season that I expected to have. I felt like I had let my team down. In the last two games, I was able to make a couple of big plays and help my team. I am just real excited. We came out with a winning record and I am just ready for next year.”
Pegues said playing at South Panola helped him tremendously.
“Like Coach Croom said, when he recruited me, I knew how to win coming from a winning program,” Pegues said. “People think that I never go down there to watch any games, but I have been down a couple of times. In the fourth quarter when the team really needs me, I like to be in that position to be able to make the plays. God has just blessed me with tremendous ability and I am just happy that I am using it and putting it to good use.”
The awards are great but the game is a team effort, Pegues said.
“ I give all the credit to my teammates and my coaches,” he said. “They put me in a good position to make those plays. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to make those plays. I give them all of the credit and this is a great accomplishment for me. I am just ready to take them home.”
Croom talked about his meetings with Pegues.
“When Derek called me and told me that he wanted to play football for me, I promised him that we would win a bowl game before he graduated and a championship game. Well, we won a bowl game tonight and next year, we are going to win a championship game before he graduates.
“Derek is a great player and a great person,” Croom added.
Cassius Ware was the last player from South Panola to receive the Liberty Bowl Most Valuable Player Award in 1992. Lee Garner of Batesville High School won the award in the early 1960s.