Silencing Mississippi State’s infamous cowbells Saturday would be a huge step toward Texas A&M having a great season.
The last three Aggie teams to play at Davis-Wade Stadium left Starkville, Mississippi, with temporary tinnitus. The ear-ringing affliction even got A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher two years ago, though he still has an appreciation for cowbells after growing up on a farm and owning cattle along with embracing college football’s traditions.
“Depends on where you’re using them at; on the farm they’re good,” Fisher laughed when asked about the cowbells Bulldog fans are famous for. “No, they’re good. They’re unique to Mississippi State and that’s good. Everybody has their thing. I think that’s one of the traditions and things that make [college football] great and that’s great for Mississippi State.”
The 11th-ranked Aggies (2-1) at least will have fewer cowbells to deal with. Saturday’s attendance at Davis-Wade Stadium (61,337) will be limited to 25% because of COVID-19.
The Bulldogs (1-2) had only 13,564 fans for their home opener, a 21-14 loss to Arkansas as the Razorbacks snapped a 20-game losing streak in Southeastern Conference play. It was a huge letdown for MSU, which opened the season with a 44-34 victory at then sixth-ranked LSU, the defending national champion.
Beating LSU was quite a start for first-year head coach Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach whom MSU hired away from Washington State with a four-year, $20 million contract. Leach’s Air Raid offense made a huge splash with quarterback K.J. Costello passing for an SEC-record 623 yards. But two weeks later, Leach’s offense didn’t score for the first time in his 19-year career during a 24-2 loss to Kentucky.
“They’ll be ready to play at home, and we have to get prepared to play on the road,” Fisher said. “So we have a great challenge in front of us, and hopefully we’ll understand why we had success and continue to prepare like we did the last few weeks.”
A&M is looking to build on a 41-38 victory over Florida, its first win over a top five team in six years. It has A&M in position to reach a New Year’s Six bowl or possibly make the College Football Playoff if it wins out. That’s feasible with only two of A&M’s remaining opponents ranked — No. 14 Auburn No. 17 Tennessee. But both of those games will be on the road, which has been anything but kind to the Aggies in recent years.
A&M is 2-7 in true road games under Fisher, but five of those losses have been to top five teams when the Aggies were a decided underdog. Two weeks ago, second-ranked Alabama was an 18-point favorite against A&M and rolled to a 52-24 victory. The Aggies had positives as quarterback Kellen Mond threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, but A&M also had two fruitless trips inside the red zone and Mond threw an interception Alabama returned for a touchdown and 28-14 lead.
“We need to do a little better than we did two weeks ago,” Fisher said.
That’s been tough historically for A&M to do in Starkville, where A&M hasn’t won since Johnny Manziel threw for 311 yards and rushed for another 129 and two touchdowns in a 38-13 victory in 2012.
In A&M’s last three trips to MSU, the Bulldogs have won because they had the better quarterback.
Nick Fitzgerald played like a Heisman Trophy candidate two years ago against the 16th-ranked Aggies, who were riding a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over previously unbeaten Kentucky. Fitzgerald threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more in a 28-13 win over A&M. Fitzgerald had an 84-yard completion on third-and-21 that set up his 1-yard touchdown run to give MSU a 21-13 lead in the third quarter, and his 76-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left clinched the victory. It came moments after A&M threw an interception in the end zone.
A&M’s most disheartening loss in Starkville came four years ago. Fitzgerald ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 victory over seventh-ranked A&M, which was ranked fourth in that week’s opening College Football Playoff rankings. The Bulldogs, at 3-5 and coming off a hard-fought 56-41 victory over FCS team Samford, gutted the Aggies for 365 yards rushing.
A&M’s woes in Starkville started in 2014 when MSU’s Dak Prescott guided the 12th-ranked Bulldogs to a 48-31 victory over the sixth-ranked Aggies in a battle of unbeatens. Prescott threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns as he completed 20 of 26 passes. He also rushed for 77 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries as the Cowbells serenaded the Bulldogs to their first victory over A&M since a 43-41 overtime victory in the 2000 Independence Bowl.
MSU’s cowbells date back to the 1930s when a cow wandered onto the playing field during a victory over rival Ole Miss, according to the school’s website. The MSU students embraced the cow as a good-luck charm and eventually started bringing cowbells to games. The cowbells became a tradition and annoyed opposing teams enough that they were banned in 1974 when the SEC adopted a rule against all artificial noisemakers at football and basketball games. The conference voted 9-1 the cowbells were a disruption.
The rule didn’t stop MSU faithful from illegally ringing cowbells. In 2010, the SEC revisited the cowbell rule and for a one-year probationary period allowed Bulldog fans to ring cowbells during pregame, timeouts, halftime and when MSU scored. The cowbells have been ringing ever since with the lone SEC rule stating that fans are prohibited from ringing them “from the time the offensive center is over the football until the play is whistled dead.”
A&M senior center Ryan McCollum said he plans to grab the football as soon as possible.
“It’s a tough place to play, and they got the cowbells,” McCollum said. “They’re really loud, but it is what is. We just have go in there and do our thing and come out with a victory.”
More than half of the players listed on A&M’s depth chart are underclassmen who haven’t played in Starkville.
Sophomore tight end Jalen Wydermyer, who has a team-leading 15 catches, didn’t know about the cowbells until this week.
“Oh, they do?” Wydermyer said during a Zoom conference after being informed about the cowbells. “Oh my goodness, that’s definitely going to be loud. We’ll just have to see how that goes.”
The fact that fewer fans will be in the stands may give the Aggies’ ears a break. Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was a lot more friendly two weeks ago with only 19,424 fans, compared to 101,821 two years ago.
“The fans are a big factor in the game, and when there’s not as many of them there, then it’s easier,” Wydermyer said.
A&M played before 57,085 last time in Starkville in a night game when it seemed each fan had two cowbells, but what McCollum, who started at right guard, remembers most is MSU’s players. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, defensive end Montez Sweat and safety Johnathan Abram all were NFL first-round draft selections. Defensive end Gerri Green also went in the sixth round.
“I’ll never forget their defensive line,” McCollum said. “They were really good. I mean, the cowbells are loud, but it’s not Kyle Field.”
Leach, who calls Kyle Field the “Carnegie Hall” of college football stadiums, doesn’t have a nickname yet for Davis-Wade Stadium, saying he’ll wait until he experiences game day in Starkville without restrictions.
The cowbells are a big part of that and are loudest when the giant video board plays a clip from a famous Saturday Night Live skit in 2000 in which host Christopher Walken, playing Blue Oyster Cult’s producer, tells band member Will Ferrell that the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper needs “more cowbell.”
Former A&M coach Jackie Sherrill, who coached at MSU from 1991-2003, helped the SEC reinstate the cowbells, saying that every school is trying to create a home-field advantage and if Tennessee can blare Rocky Top, MSU fans should be allowed to ring cowbells.
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