Mississippi State gets 'momentum swing' heading into Egg Bowl

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen couldn't duck the question. From Sunday to Friday, he was asked over and over by media and fans alike, "How are you going to respond? How is our team going to respond?"

And every time he'd tell them the truth. He'd say, "We had a great week of practice."

It wasn't satisfying, of course, and he knew that. It wasn't coach speak, though. It was reality, he said. Even he needed to see how his team would respond on game day.

"It was going to be interesting," he said.

By the end of Saturday night, Mullen was all smiles. His Mississippi State Bulldogs didn't go in the dumps after last weekend's loss at Alabama. Instead, they took it to Vanderbilt, winning 51-0 on Senior Night. It was the program's largest margin of victory in an SEC game since 1936.

"I couldn't be happier with how our guys responded; offense, defense, kicking game, guys flying around, making plays, playing with that chip on their shoulder and really believing we have an awful lot still to play for," Mullen said. "You saw that on the field with how our guys played."

You saw it in any number of ways, really.

Even Mullen himself was feisty. At one point he grabbed his punter's facemask and gave him an earful. A few moments later he became irate over a pass interference call and ripped into a referee, drawing another flag.

Davis-Wade Stadium had life again.

The defense was aggressive and the offensive line was dominant. It was the best rhythm quarterback Dak Prescott & Co. had shown in more than a month.

On one play, linebacker Christian Holmes stripped the football, recovered the fumble and ran 51 yards for a touchdown. It was the play of the night. When Holmes got to the sideline, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins told him, "Turtle, we needed that."

"After that, Tolando [Cleveland] caught the interception, and then there was one more turnover we had," Holmes said. "It was kind of a domino effect.

"Hopefully next week we can do the same thing."

A win against Ole Miss on Saturday would keep Mississippi State's dream of reaching the College Football Playoff alive. If Alabama loses to Auburn, it would also mean a trip to Atlanta to compete in the SEC championship game.

But this past weekend's game against Vanderbilt was about setting the table.

It was about making a statement, players said.

"We just wanted to come back and respond," said linebacker Matt Wells. "It was a tough loss last week, so we wanted to come back and redeem ourselves."

Ben Beckwith called it "a huge, big momentum swing."

"We were kind of in a lull," the offensive lineman said. "I wouldn't say we were playing bad, we weren't playing with a lot of juice, a lot of action. We were playing timid with that No. 1 beside us. We got the loss last week in a tough game and we played well in the second half, and I think that carried over into today."

He later added, "It was an awesome win, a dominant win, a statement win that says, 'Hey, we lost a game, but we came back stronger. We're going to keep doing our thing. We're still one of the best team in the country.'"

It came against 3-8 Vanderbilt, granted, but Mississippi State can't help its schedule. Judged in a vacuum, the outcome was impressive.

It was just what the doctor ordered.

"That's exactly what we wanted to do, to come out and show how hungry we were after that loss," said Prescott, who fired off three touchdowns and no interceptions. "We just had to respond, and we did exactly that on offense and defense. Just a good, complete game from the whole team.

"We got back to that team we were earlier in the year."

Back to the team that rose to No. 1 in a hurry.

Some other team took its place in the weeks that followed.

Now No. 4 in the polls with a razor-thin margin for error, the question becomes which team shows up for Saturday's must-win game in Oxford.

"What we want is still ahead of us," said receiver Joe Morrow. "We still have to get there. We just have to work, work, work, and then hopefully we'll be in the final four."