STARKVILLE — Sometime soon, possibly as early as early next week, Ole Miss will get a final reckoning from the NCAA. It likely won’t be pretty.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss decision makers must make a huge one about the future of the football program. Search for a new coach? Keep interim Matt Luke?
That’s the future. But on a crisp, cold Thanksgiving night in Starkville, the Rebels gave their fans something to celebrate and an Egg Bowl they will long remember. The Rebels, 14-point underdogs, stunned arch-rival Mississippi State 31-28 after building a 31-13 fourth quarter lead.
What’s more, the Rebels rubbed the Bulldogs’ faces in it.
There was Rebel wide receiver and Starkville native A.J. Brown, the one who looks like he just stepped out of the NFL, catching a 77-yard, third quarter touchdown pass and then shouting into the MSU crowd, “This is my city! My city!”
There was D.K. Metcalf, the Rebels’ other muscular receiver who looks like an NFL veteran, catching a 63-yard touchdown pass and then celebrating with a faux dog pee in the maroon and white, “Hail State” end zone. It was a marvelous play by Metcalf, but it will not be remembered as his finest or most classy moment.
And all that was preceded in the first quarter by one of the most gruesome injuries you’ll see in this or any season. Just six minutes into the game, State’s fine quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took off around left end and was hit with his leg planted on a three-yard gain. Fitzgerald suffered a scary, dislocated right ankle and was carted off the field. That came after a long pause in play when players from both teams took a knee and then applauded as Fitzgerald was driven from the field.
It was one touching moment in what turned into a chippy, at times sloppy game.
Let’s put it this way: Ole Miss was penalized 13 times for 121 yards – and won. State was penalized another nine times for 88 yards. But the Bulldogs hurt themselves more than the yellow penalty flags ever could.
The recipe for a 14-point underdog winning is the same as it has been since the days of no helmets and the flying wedge. That is, win the turnovers decisively. Ole Miss did.
The Rebels forced five turnovers, three by true freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson, who entered the game when Fitzgerald exited. Ole Miss turned it over twice, which means the Rebels were a plus-3 in turnovers. That will result in victory most every time – and especially when the team that loses the turnover battle also loses its best player.
But the best player on the field this night was Brown, the wide receiver who looks as he could play linebacker and runs like a sprinter. These Egg Bowls often leave us with one lasting memory.
Here’s mine from this one: Midway through the third quarter, Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu went back into the pocket and saw Brown streaking down the right sideline in front of the MSU bench. Brown was five yards clear of the defender and when Ta’amu fired a gorgeous spiral in that direction, it appeared that he had badly overthrown Brown.
Said Luke, “I didn’t think there was anyway A.J. could get it. He just outran the ball.”
He did – and he surprised even himself.
“I just got a burst out of nowhere, and it fell in my hands,” Brown said. “I don’t know how I caught the ball. I just stuck out my hands – and it stuck.”
Luke has played with – and coached – some amazing athletes in his long association with Ole Miss as a player, assistant and interim coach. This seemed like a good time to ask him about where Brown ranks among those.
“Well, he’s the school’s all-time leading receiver and he’s just a sophomore,” Luke answered. “That says something right there. We’ve had some pretty good ones.”
Brown’s six catches for 167 yards and a touchdown give him 1,252 yards for the season, surpassing Laquon Treadwell’s record of 1,153 yards in 2015. So, you’re probably asking, “How come Stae didn’t double-team him?”
And they did occasionally. But you can’t double-team him all the time when you have other wideouts like Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge and a 1,100-yard rusher such as Jordan Wilkins. Whoever inherits those weapons – not to mention Ta’amu and injured quarterback Shea Patterson – will have weapons the envy of most every other Division I school.
While 6-6 Ole Miss awaits its NCAA sentence and considers its coaching situation, 8-4 State awaits a bowl bid for a game they surely will play without Fitzgerald. Also, Bulldog coach Dan Mullen has been mentioned for several other coaching jobs. Saturday night’s result might quiet some of that.
We’ll see. And, as we saw Thursday night, there are no sure things in this crazy game.