By Brett Martel/The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. — Now Hugh Freeze has an idea of what Ole Miss coaching great Johnny Vaught must have felt like a little more than a half-century ago.
Freeze was on the brink of a landmark victory in Death Valley in his first season as Ole Miss coach, only to watch Odell Beckham Jr. run right by him during an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown that erased the Rebels’ last lead in a 41-35 loss to No. 8 LSU on Saturday.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, maybe not at this level, but this here is one of the most difficult locker rooms to be in this year,” Freeze said. “Our kids just fought for our university and our fans and they should be proud of that. We just can’t seem to get that stop when we have to have one, or that touchdown when we have to have one.”
Vaught was Ole Miss coach back in 1959, when Billy Cannon famously returned a punt 89 yards against the Rebels, down the same sideline, in the same quarter, to lift LSU to a classic victory in the more than century-old rivalry.
Beckham eluded numerous tacklers, slipping one as he traversed the field, then broke away from pursuers down the right sideline toward the north end zone while teammate Jarvis Landry waved him along with windmill motion.
“Everyone had their block, everyone had their man and everyone covered their assignments,” Beckham said. “I saw a crease and I just hit it. … It was an amazing experience and definitely changed the momentum of the game.”
The punt return tied the game at 35, but LSU (9-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) still needed a pair of clutch sacks by Anthony Johnson and Lavar Edwards to drive Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) out of routine field goal range later in the fourth quarter. Bryson Rose then pushed a 53-yard kick wide right, and LSU marched for the winning score on Jeremy Hill’s 1-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace passed for 310 yards and two TDs and ran for two scores, but also was intercepted three times. His touchdowns went Donte Moncrief, the first for 56 yards and the second for 30. Wallace’s first score came on a 58-yard run.
“Everything we were doing was working,” Wallace said. “We executed for the most part, but there were still times that we were shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to eliminate that.”
LSU coach Les Miles was effusive in his praise of how Ole Miss played, and gushed over the Tigers’ inexorable determination, urging LSU fans to put their arms around his players and “give them a big kiss on the mouth.”
“How easy it could of have been to say it was (Mississippi’s) night,” Miles said. “Wow! What a game!”
Zach Mettenberger completed 22 of 37 passes for 282 yards and was intercepted twice. Hill finished with 77 yards rushing, including a 27 yard run for his first TD. Spencer Ware had LSU’s other touchdown on a leap over the pile on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
“I never thought at any point we were going to lose that game,” Mettenberger said. “We had control of the game. We had a couple of turnovers but we had been driving the ball well all night and the passing game was there. We just have to clean up the turnovers and we still won. Hopefully we can go into next week against Arkansas and do the same thing.”
The Ole Miss turnovers gave LSU chances to seize control, but the Tigers had three drives stall inside the Mississippi 10. Two of them ended with field goals and another with Senquez Golson’s interception in the end zone, a play that allowed the Rebels to cling to a 21-20 lead in the third quarter.
Mississippi then widened its lead to 28-20 on a drive set up by Golson’s second interception of Mettenberger. Wallace and Ja-Mes Logan connected on a fourth-and-3 play for the second time in the game to extend a scoring drive. This one was capped by Randall Mackey’s 6-yard scoring run.
LSU rallied to tie it on Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run around the left side and a 2-point conversion on Mettenberger’s pass to Ware, but the Rebels marched right back down the field in 28 seconds to regain the lead, 35-28, on Wallace’s pass to Moncrief along the left sideline.
That, however, would be the final points for a Mississippi team that is one win from bowl eligibility and made it clear early on it was not going to lay down against an LSU team favored by more than two touchdowns.
“We should have had it. We let it slip away,” Mackey said. “We’re just tired of losing. We came ready to play.”