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Hanging out to dry

Petre Thomas/The Daily Mississippian

 

When it was announced Nov. 7 that head coach Houston Nutt would not return next season, he was left to coach the last three games of the 2011 season. It was not the swan song Nutt had in mind. 

After blowout losses to Louisiana Tech and No. 1 LSU at home, the Houston Nutt era at Ole Miss (2-10, 0-8 SEC) reached its conclusion on a rain-soaked Saturday night in Starkville. 

The result was clear from the beginning, as Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6 SEC) dominated from start to finish in a 31-3 win, their third straight win in the series and the Rebels’ worst loss to the Bulldogs since 1919.

“It is hard for a younger group when they are told your coach is leaving,” Nutt said. “It’s just a really tough situation. It’s not an excuse; it’s a fact. It’s hard. I would not have done it any other way. I wanted to finish out the year with them, but I wish things could have gone a little differently.”

And so ends the 2011 football season, the program’s first two-win season since 1946 and the first 10-loss season in a program, losses that included blowouts to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama as well as to Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and, most recently, Mississippi State. 

In the short term, first-year wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer will lead the transition team from Nutt to the Rebels’ new head coach, which includes recruiting and player relations. In the long term, that new head coach will inherit a program that will carry a seven-game losing streak, as well as a school-record 14-game Southeastern Conference losing streak into the 2012 football season.

In the 2011 Egg Bowl, Mississippi State set the tone from the start with back-to-back powerful runs of 12 yards and 17 yards from senior quarterback Chris Relf. The Bulldogs found the end zone when Relf completed an 18-yard throwback pass to senior running back Vick Ballard.

On the ensuing kickoff, sophomore wide receiver Philander Moore returned the ball to near midfield before being hit and fumbling, which Mississippi State recovered at its own 46-yard line. 

“We are a team that is very fragile, and you can’t turn the ball over like we did on the kickoff,” Nutt said. “When things go bad, they go bad. This is a team that just lacks a little confidence.”

The Ole Miss defense forced a three-and-out, and junior Tyler Campbell flipped field position with a 59-yard punt that was downed at Mississippi State’s own two-yard line. After four short gains and a costly 15-yard facemask penalty, Ballard broke a tackle from freshman safety Cody Prewitt and gained 21 yards to Mississippi State’s own 46-yard line. Four plays later, Relf executed a perfectly-timed option pitch to sophomore LaDarius Perkins, who made Prewitt miss and went 36 yards for the touchdown.

“Just missed way too many tackles,” Nutt said. “You can’t give up anything, especially us. For us to win a game like this, we have to have something good to us early. Get on the board, not fumble the kickoff, and you got to tackle.”

The Rebels looked to turn the momentum when Prewitt intercepted a tipped pass as Ole Miss took over at Mississippi State’s 40-yard line. Ole Miss went for it on fourth-and-five from the 35-yard line, but sophomore quarterback Barry Brunetti’s swing pass to senior running back Brandon Bolden lost four yards.

The Bulldogs moved the ball into Ole Miss territory to the 31-yard line after 40 yards on four carries from Ballard and then into the red zone after a pass interference penalty. Relf capped the drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Perkins, who broke a tackle from senior safety Damien Jackson just short of the end zone. Mississippi State took a 21-0 lead into halftime after outgaining Ole Miss 252-65 in the first half, including 182-25 on the ground.

Any hopes of a second-half comeback for the Rebels were quickly lost when Bolden fumbled on the second play from scrimmage in the second half. Two plays later, Ballard ran untouched for a 25-yard touchdown. Ballard finished with 144 yards on 23 carries compared to the Rebels’ 92 yards on 42 carries as a team. Perkins and Relf added 64 yards and 49 yards, respectively, on the ground for the Bulldogs.

Ole Miss put points on the scoreboard later in third quarter, when junior kicker Bryson Rose connected on a 28-yard field goal, his ninth of the season. From that point on, the clock ticked away for Nutt and the Rebels, as the Bulldogs later added a 35-yard field goal to extend the lead to 31-3.

On the final drive of the season, Brunetti found junior tight end Jamal Mosley over the middle for a 61-yard gain inside Mississippi State’s 10-yard line. 

Two plays later, the Rebels scored an apparent three-yard touchdown pass from Brunetti to freshman wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the call was reversed after further review. The next play, the last of the game, Brunetti was stopped for no gain. 

In his second career start, his first since the season opener against BYU, Brunetti completed 12 of 22 passes for 110 yards while Moncrief broke Mike Espy’s freshman record with 31 catches this season, including four passes for 20 yards in the game.