With the daily work of Peach Bowl week I didn’t really get around to reflecting on 2014.
The game itself will be forever remembered as a disappointing finish to an otherwise outstanding year for Ole Miss football.
The Arkansas game, a 30-0 loss in Fayetteville, would be considered an ugly outlier if not for the Peach Bowl. With the bowl the Rebels suddenly have two blowout losses in their last three games. No matter how impressive and meaningful the Egg Bowl victory was – and it was very much both of those – there are two ugly losses on each side.
While the Rebels looked flat at distracted against Arkansas and TCU they were clearly locked in against Mississippi State.
There are explanations for the losses, factors that weighed in like the crushing loss of both the Auburn game and receiver Laquon Treadwell going into Fayetteville.
Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil said they felt like the team was looking past Arkansas, surprising given Arkansas’ dominant performance against LSU the week before and the number of near-misses the Hogs had had over the life of their SEC losing streak.
Preparation was also a buzz word floating around the postgame after TCU.
Clearly that was part of it. I think TCU was just really good, better than Ole Miss expected.
At any rate, it was a great season for the Rebels with many highs before the disappointment at the end.
Here are five defining moments from the regular season.
Treadwell takes over: This was only a 7-6 game going into the fourth quarter.
The Rebels faced third-and-8 from the Boise 43 in a one-point game when Bo Wallace and Treadwell connected on a “free play.” Boise was off-sides, still not enough for the first down, and Wallace took a shot downfield with Boise in man coverage. Treadwell made the catch for 29 yards.
Two plays later Wallace passed 14 yards to Treadwell for the score.
It was like the pressure was off, and Ole Miss rolled to 28 fourth-quarter points and a 35-13 win. Treadwell finished with seven catches for 105 yards.
Wallace sinks Tide: The Alabama game was not secured until Senquez Golson’s end zone interception in the final seconds. It will be the mental snapshot for everyone who thinks back to that game.
It was Bo Wallace, though, who threw three touchdown passes in the last quarter and a half of play, one to Treadwell, a 34-yard to Vince Sanders who extended to make an athletic catch, and finally the game-winner to Jaylen Walton from 10 yards out.
When Ole Miss failed to convert an extra point on two attempts not a soul in Vaught-Hemingway was not thinking of the tragic possibility of Alabama winning 24-23. That possibility looked very real until Golson’s pick, but none of it would have mattered had Wallace not been on top of his game.
The 99-yard drive: What better place for a letdown than before more than 110,000 Texans, an electric night-time atmosphere at newly expanded Kyle Field, as Texas A&M had just been embarrassed the week before when it lost decisively at Mississippi State.
The Rebels had to distance themselves from the Alabama win and be emotionally prepared in an extremely difficult environment.
The defense played lights out showing the consistency it had shown all season.
The offense matched that performance, and the Rebels took a two-touchdown first-quarter lead when Wallace capped a nine-play, 99-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Wallace was 4-for-4 for 52 yards on the drive.
It became a three-touchdown Ole Miss lead minutes later when Cody Prewitt returned an interception 75 yards for a score.
The Rebels went on to win 35-20 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
Treadwell’s season-ending injury: After seven-straight wins Ole Miss, ranked No. 3, suffered its first loss of the season at LSU the week prior to the Auburn game. The Rebels still controlled their own destiny and were inches from rebounding with a win.
Treadwell was in the process of scoring what in all likelihood would have been the winning touchdown when he was hit and his leg was broken just inches from breaking the plane of the goalline.
The Rebels had missed a chance to take the lead on their previous possession when Wallace fumbled near the goalline.
There’s no guarantee Ole Miss would have held the lead at that point in the game, but a Treadwell score would have put Ole Miss ahead 38-35 with 1 minute, 30 seconds left.
Instead, Auburn held on to win 35-31.
Egg Bowl Celebration: The loss of the Auburn game and Treadwell no doubt factored into a 30-0 loss at Arkansas, but the Razorbacks’ hunger to win again after ending a 17-game SEC losing streak with a 17-0 win over LSU was the bigger factor.
Whatever the factors, the Arkansas loss, the injuries, all of the above, created a sense of doubt as the state rivals visited.
Ole Miss, physically, was not in position to sustain 12- and 15-play drives against MSU, but Hugh Freeze had his team very prepared. He reached into the trick bag a few times. While the Rebels weren’t fit for long drives they used big plays instead. Wallace limited his turnovers and exploited the MSU secondary, twice hitting Evan Engram for big plays to the MSU 1. The Rebels were able to score touchdowns from there.
They also scored touchdowns on a 91-yard run by Jaylen Walton and an option pass from tailback Jordan Wilkins.
Freeze has called the Walton run a broken play. Yes it was broken, but when you hear broken play you think of one or two guys missing tackles.
Walton ran right, saw almost the entire MSU defense, used his athleticism to reverse field … and then broke tackles. Walton ran through some contact. It wasn’t like MSU guys whiffed completely. It was a tough run back on the left side for Walton, plus good execution with a couple of key blocks.
It was the kind of big play Ole Miss had to have to win the game.
That plus the good defense the Rebels showed by taking the Josh Robinson and Dak Prescott – Prescott’s running – out of the game.
So the TCU loss stings as it should. Because the Rebels were so thoroughly defeated in their last game it’s hard to claim real momentum for the off-season.
But that’s what the program should have after a 9-4 year.
There’s a lot of focus on quarterback right now. When the dust settles Chad Kelly will probably be the starter.
Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson are key defensive losses, but there are enough returning parts and pieces to be really good on that side of the ball again next year.
Priority 1 for Ole Miss should be to fix the offensive line.