The Ole Miss Rebels pulled together an upset against the No. 14 Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 90th annual Egg Bowl on Thursday night. After a year of ups and downs, head coach Matt Luke and his team entered the evening with a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove.
“This wasn’t my fourteenth Egg Bowl, this was my forty-first Egg Bowl,” Luke said. “And to the people of the state of Mississippi, this is the most important game of the year.”
After just missing DaMarkus Lodge down the sideline on the first play of the game, quarterback Jordan Ta’amu found Starkville-native A.J. Brown for a 58-yard catch-and-run on the very next play.
“I felt like our biggest advantage was our receivers versus their defensive backs,” Luke said. “We wanted to take advantage of that early, and any time they played one high, we wanted to take advantage of that.”
Hustling to the line, running back Jordan Wilkins scampered up the middle and put Ole Miss up a touchdown, just three plays into the game.
On the subsequent Mississippi State possession, Rebel cornerback Myles Hartsfield jumped in front of a sure-thing touchdown route and intercepted quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s pass. However, the Rebels were unable to capitalize on the turnover.
With nine minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Bulldogs took over on offense and ran a read option that ended in disaster. Faking the handoff to running back Aeris Williams, Fitzgerald kept the ball and ran around outside the tackles, where he was met by 285-pound defensive end Breeland Speaks.
“I was the quarterback guy on that simple read option,” Speaks said. “He kept it, I grabbed him.”
On the play, Fitzgerald dislocated his ankle and was carted off and did not to return to action.
In his absence, freshman Keytaon Thompson was unable to move the chains and gave the keys back to Ta’amu.
Although the ensuing Rebel drive ended in a punt, a 17-yard reception by Brown put him atop the single-season school record for receiving yards, surpassing former Rebel, now Minnesota Vikings player Laquon Treadwell with 1,169.
“I knew I had a lot of eyes on me,” the Starkville High School graduate Brown said. “I was trying to just keep my cool and play my game. All week I heard they were trying to keep me out of the game and all of this and that, but I didn’t let it phase me.”
Subsequently trading possessions for a moment, the craziness continued as Ole Miss took over with 2:08 remaining in the first quarter. Anchored by 12 and 19 yard runs from Wilkins and Ta’amu, the Rebels found themselves with a fourth-and-1 at the Mississippi State 36-yard-line. After electing to go for it, offensive guard Jordan Sims jumped the snap and moved the Rebels back five yards, forcing Will Gleeson to punt. The Australian’s effort was blocked by Jeffrey Simmons, and recovered by the home team.
With great field position at the Ole Miss 42, Thompson dropped back for the Bulldogs and floundered a pass in the direction of C.J. Moore. The 5-foot-11 cornerback snatched it out of the air and returned the interception 48 yards into Mississippi State territory before being met with a late hit that added 15 yards to the play, and put Ole Miss inside the redzone. Seven plays later, kicker Gary Wunderlich converted from 33-yards out and gave the Rebels a 10-0 lead.
However, Mississippi State would answer with three of its own after eight consecutive running plays allowed Jace Christmann to find his range. And just before the half, Christmann tacked on three more and the Rebels went into the locker room ahead by only four.
Following two punts to begin the second half, Mississippi State’s second possession was met with great field position at the Ole Miss 40-yard line. Driving to the 18, Thompson attempted a draw play but was clobbered by Josiah Coatney and lost the ball. Scooped up by A.J. Moore, the defense forced yet another turnover.
Two plays later, Brown broke past his man-to-man coverage, chased down a pass from Ta’amu that seemed just out of reach and ran 77-yards for a 17-6 Ole Miss lead.
“I was kind of nervous that he overthrew me,” Brown said. “I got a burst out of nowhere and it just fell in my hands. I don’t know how I caught the ball. I just stuck out my hands and the ball just stuck.”
The big plays for the Rebels did not stop there. With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Ta’amu found D.K. Metcalf for a 63-yard touchdown catch that put the Rebels ahead 24-6 and saw the maroon-and-white-faithful begin to head for the door as the quarter came to a close. However, the Bulldogs were not ready to give up the fight and scored with just more than nine minutes remaining in the game.
Less than a minute later, Wilkins found a hole and ran 46-yards for a touchdown and became the first Ole Miss 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster in 2009.
“Last year, during the year that was off, I was telling people that ‘I’m going to run for a thousand, I’m working my tail off to run for a thousand,’” Wilkins said. “My O-line did a great job. It wasn’t just me, they opened up holes and I got here.”
Though the Mississippi State was able to add 10 more points in a long fourth quarter, Ole Miss’ lead was insurmountable and coach Luke was met with two Gatorade baths and chants of his name as the team stormed the field and engulfed the Egg Bowl trophy.
“I’m going to enjoy this night and enjoy these players,” Luke said. “I don’t have any regrets, I’m grateful for this opportunity. It’s a dream of mine, and I’m thankful for the chance to do it and finished with this win.”