OXFORD — Ole Miss football‘s chaotic short week looked destined to end in sheer embarrassment for the Rebels. Instead, it concluded with a vicious punch to the gut.
The Rebels suffered a 24-22 defeat to Mississippi State on Thursday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, with the game’s outcome decided by a failed two-point conversion attempt with 1:25 left at the end of a 99-yard Ole Miss touchdown drive only made possible by Will Rogers’ goal-line fumble.
The result gave coach Lane Kiffin his first Egg Bowl defeat in three attempts. It ended Ole Miss’ dream of stringing together two 10-win seasons for the first time since 1959-60. And, perhaps most importantly in a bitter rivalry such as this, it sent the fans wearing Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4) colors home with bragging rights for 12 months.
On its first five drives of the second half, Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4 SEC) managed only 27 yards. Those drives resulted in three punts, a turnover on downs and a fumble. Its last drive ended in six points, but the Rebels needed eight.
After taking a one-point lead with 13:46 to go via a field goal, the Bulldogs struck what turned out to be the decisive blow when the Ole Miss secondary lost Rara Thomas streaking down the left sideline. He hauled in a 22-yard touchdown pass from Will Rogers that put the Bulldogs up eight points — a hill too tall for the struggling Ole Miss offense to climb, despite Jaxson Dart’s late TD pass to Dayton Wade.
Rebels miss third-quarter opportunity to extend lead
Tavius Robinson was a force in Rogers’ face all night.
Midway through the third quarter, he made one of his most impactful plays, sacking Rogers and forcing a fumble for the Rebels’ Cedric Johnson to jump on. The Rebels took over on the Bulldogs’ 36-yard line, up 16-14 and with a chance to give their defense a cushion.
Ole Miss brought the ball down to the MSU 6-yard line, and stalled — another example of a red-zone offense that has failed Ole Miss of late.
Needing two yards on fourth down, Kiffin elected to go for it. His gamble backfired, and the Rebels gave the ball right back to the Bulldogs. Mississippi State promptly marched 78 yards to kick a field goal with 13:46 remaining that gave them their first lead since the 12:04 mark of the second quarter.
Turnover sequence puts Ole Miss up two scores, but the Bulldogs reply
Rogers came into the Egg Bowl with five interceptions on the year and just two in his last eight games.
The Rebels forced a big one from him in the middle of the second quarter, when Otis Reese got his hands on a pass over the middle. That gave the Rebels the ball at their own 36-yard line, a big field position win after they started their previous two drives inside their own 15.
Ole Miss then embarked on a 13-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that was finished by a fourth-and-goal pass from Dart to defensive tackle JJ Pegues.
It looked like Ole Miss would go into the half up two scores, but the Bulldogs responded, driving 75 yards in 1:47 to set up a 19-yard touchdown reception by Lideatrick Griffin with eight seconds left in the half.
Rebels forced to settle for field goals early
The busiest Rebel through one-third of Thursday night’s contest might have been kicker Jonathan Cruz.
Suffering from the same red zone issues that plagued them last weekend against Arkansas, Ole Miss struggled to convert its early total yardage advantage into points.
On two of their first three drives, the Rebels ventured into the Mississippi State red zone and couldn’t punch it in, calling on Cruz to kick short field goals.
On their fourth drive of the game, Ole Miss wide receiver Jonathan Mingo dropped what likely would have been a touchdown pass over the middle of the field. The drive stalled, and Ole Miss brought Cruz onto the field again. He delivered from 49 yards out to give the Rebels a 9-7 lead early in the second frame.
With the regular season at an end, Ole Miss will find out its bowl future on Sunday, Dec. 4.
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for the Clarion Ledger. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter @davideckert98.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Ole Miss football, Lane Kiffin fall to Mississippi State in Egg Bowl