Lou Holtz's Gamecocks were 2-0 on the young 2001 season. We had easily handled Dan Hawkins' Boise State Broncos 32-13 at Williams-Brice Stadium, and had then handed brand new UGA head coach Mark Richt a loss, 14-9, in his first SEC game Between the Hedges.
Ranked # 21 in the AP poll, we were then supposed to have played a good Bowling Green team from the MAC, but college football was suspended the Saturday after the attack. How we would play on a Thursday night road game in a hostile stadium, following an unscheduled "bye" and dealing with all the swirling emotions, was an open question. Worse, our flight out to Mississippi had mechanical troubles (at a time no one wanted to be in the air) and we didn't arrive in Starkville until the day of the game.
Coached by the immortal Jackie Sherill - then in his 11th season at Starkville - the Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-0) were were ranked # 17 and favored to beat us. The MSU "D" was coached by one of the SEC's all-time top defensive coordinators Joe Lee Dunn (an ex USC assistant). Our "D" coordinator was no slouch either - Charlie Strong, now the head man at Louisville.
Interestingly, the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator was former USC head coach Sparky Woods; current Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz - Lou's son - was our "O" coordinator.
The Cocks prevailed 16-14. Our defense dominated the first half (holding MSU to 41 yards) and was stout through the second - surrendering the second TD with just :36 left in the game. The real story of the game was how Corey Jenkins took over several drives in the 2nd half in relief of Phil Petty, chewing up time and yards, and completely flummoxing Dunn. Watching the telecast, it's fun to hear names from the past like Petty and Jenkins, as well as as others like Sheldon Brown, Anthony Pinnock, Ryan Brewer and Langston Moore. Pinnock scored our only TD in the 1st quarter on a 35 yard run; Petty set the school record for most passing attempts by a USC signal-caller without a pick.
The game was pivotal for both teams. MSU, coming off three straight 8+ game winning seasons, would finish a disappointing 3-8. You could make an argument that this loss was the first that ultimately led to Jackie Sherrill's "retirement" mid-season in 2003, and marked the end of the Bulldogs as an upper echelon SEC power.
The Cocks would go on to finish 9-3 - beating Clemson and winning our second Outback Bowl in a row over Ohio State - finishing # 13 in the AP poll. Of course, as we know, Holtz would never be able to sustain success of those two magical seasons (2000-2001) - and the Cocks would also soon sink back into mediocrity before Holtz's own retirement at the end of the 2004 campaign.
More important than the score or the fate of both teams, however, was what took place in the pre-game. Keep in mind that not only had college football been suspended, but the whole NFL slate. USC-MSU was not just the first football game since the attacks, but the first major game in any sport in those ten days. (True, MLB resumed play on the 17th, but the New York Mets would not host the first game in the Big Apple until the 21st).
The eyes of the whole country were on Starkville. And did Mississippi State and South Carolina ever deliver - before and during the game.
For a nation in pain, the Cocks and Bulldogs offered a chance for a grieving nation to escape the pain for at least a few hours - after days of anguish and angst that were still so incredibly raw (also recall that the Anthrax attacks had begun on the 18th).
"I think it was important for America to see a football game because football is America's sport. It is not played anywhere else in the world. They got to see a good, competitive game tonight." - Lou Holtz
No one could be more proud than the MSU folks that night. State fans came decked-out in Red, White and Blue along with their traditional Maroon and White. They chanted "USA-USA" instead of ringing their beloved bells. American flags were everywhere. The emotion was palpable through the TV screen. I can only imagine what it must have felt like inside.
I am not ashamed to say I was teary-eyed when the Cocks and Dogs solemnly marched onto Scott Field, holding up together a huge U.S. flag, or when Jackie Sherrill's daughter delivered the National Anthem, or the when the whole stadium sang God Bless America. More than a decade later, I still find the scene incredibly moving.
The SEC approved all the member teams to wear American flags on their helmets and donated $1m to the relief effort.
I still tip my hat to Mississippi State University for that pregame - and for allowing the Cocks to take part.
Watch the first 5 minutes of the video. And remember.