Notes and thoughts from the Rebels’ 31-17 win over Mississippi State …
I mentioned during the week that I often don’t give enough thought to the emotions of the rivalry when making the pre-game guess.
I actually picked the Rebels to win this game, and I based part of that on emotion, but I really didn’t feel good about the pick.
I didn’t give the Rebels much chance to run the ball unless Hugh Freeze presented some different looks, and he did, not with personnel but with some different looks … a Statue of Liberty call for Jaylen Walton, a reverse with DeVante Kincade lined up as a receiver, and leaning a little more on Jeremy Liggins than he has recently.
The biggest run of the game wasn’t a totally different look. It was Wallace under center, which doesn’t happen often, but they’ve shown that toss sweep to Walton before. What Walton hadn’t shown was a cut-back against an over-pursuing defense. I counted six MSU defenders sprinting to the right side to catch Walton. He obviously counted them too, and changed course. When he did he got a key block from Evan Engram about 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That sprung him, and he got another key block from Cody Core down field.
When all was said and done Walton had run 91 yards for a touchdown.
Those were the plays that Ole Miss had to make. The Rebels weren’t healthy enough to play a physical, pounding game against MSU.
They needed big plays, and they needed trickeration. They needed aggressive play-calling from Hugh Freeze. They needed all those things to help Bo Wallace, their gimpy quarterback who didn’t practice all week. Clearly the ankle affected Wallace’s accuracy. He was under 50 percent passing for only the third time this year with 13 completions on 30 attempts. But on those completions he averaged 22.7 yards.
Ole Miss had seven plays of more than 30 yards. Getting offense in chunks off-set the physical limitations of the unit.
Scoring with big plays negated one of State’s strengths, red zone defense.
Trickeration was important too. Freeze said he worked on Jordan Wilkins’ halfback pass for a month. Wilkins ran it beautifully, and the play was helped by the fact that Wilkins had just gone for 41 yards on a sweep.
Freeze probably had a bit of a lump in his throat when he called the play, because it was practiced for a month with Vince Sanders.
Sanders was out of the game, and Core picked up the slack.
There was no immediate word on the severity of Sanders’ knee injury. Not only did the Rebels lose their new No. 1 at receiver, they didn’t even get a penalty on the play. It was a horrible no-call as Sanders was out of bounds for several steps when the MSU defender slung him to the turf.
The Rebels’ timely offense would have been for naught if not for their stellar defense.
The defense played with emotion and pep from the get-go. It had to. After LSU provided a blue print of how to beat this Ole Miss defense with a power run game, you could point to the Egg Bowl and see a matchup that could give the Rebels problems.
MSU went into the game averaging 246.8 yards a game on the ground, third in the SEC. The Ole Miss defensive front dominated the Bulldogs’ offensive line. State rushed for 163 yards, but it took 47 attempts to get there, an average gain of 3.5 yards.
MSU’s second back, Ashton Shumpert, had some success with 68 yards on 10 carries. But the Bulldogs were never able to sustain offensive success. Josh Robinson, their thousand-yard rusher, had just 44 yards on 12 carries.
Dak Prescott had an efficient night passing, but he has to do more than that for State to win big games. He was never a factor on the ground. That’s a major part of what he does, and Ole Miss would never give him the middle of the field. He averaged 2.0 yards on 24 carries. Robert Nkemdiche got off blocks, made plays and finished with seven tackles and a tackle for loss.
There was not much margin for error for Ole Miss in this game. There were things the Rebels had to do, plays they had to make, and they made them.
They also played with passion.
I mentioned last week that after last year’s Egg Bowl overtime loss the two most motivated people on the team should be Wallace and Freeze.
Freeze couldn’t get his offense to gain separation last year when the Bulldogs were playing more of the game with a backup quarterback. State hung around and Dak finally won it for them.
The win wasn’t secure until Wallace fumbled in the end zone on the game’s last play, the last of his four turnovers.
You knew that would motivate Wallace, and he let it all hang out discussing that game in the postgame presser.
But the play that allowed Ole Miss to capture the emotion, the play they saw repeatedly through the video work of football media director Chris Buttgen, was what happened instantly after Wallace’s fumble last year. He laid on the ground devastated as the MSU celebration exploded around him. It wasn’t enough for Nickoe Whitley to celebrate with his teammates. The now former MSU defensive back went to Wallace, stood over him and pushed his head into the turf.
It was amazing to hear the passion in C.J. Johnson’s voice as he recalled watching that play on TV. Injuries had already cut short Johnson’s season, and he didn’t make the trip with the team.
“I was home on the couch. It was painful man. That game, that State game, was a gut-check. It was awful, to watch that on TV and see all the extracurricular. It had me ready to go for this week. I’ve watched it several times since and came here and watched it all week. What sticks out in my mind when people bring up that game from last year is that clip. Bo’s laying down after he fumbled the ball, and the guy just comes up to him and stuffs his head in the ground. That’s all I thought about all week to be honest,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s passion wasn’t finished. He carried on about his respect for Wallace, the criticism Wallace has endured through his career and how he’s responded to it.
“There’s nobody else in that locker room that would take the criticism he does and go out and play the way he plays on Saturday. Nobody. I’m just so happy for him, man. I’m so proud of the way he comes out and fights every day. Good Bo, bad Bo, he’s been through that all his career. He comes out and takes the criticism and goes to work, makes plays, still gets criticized and goes to work,” Johnson said.
Freeze was asked the Florida question, and he responded by saying he hasn’t been in contact with Florida.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be soon, and if his stock dropped after Arkansas it rocketed up tonight.
Ross Bjork has talked about working on a Freeze extension, and I’m hearing Freeze could jump to $4 million in salary.
It’s the price of poker. Whatever the figure, Bjork needs to find it and wrap this up soon.