#4-Bulldog Dreams Dashed 31-17

OXFORD – A team with everything imaginable to play for, did not play that way.

#4-ranked Mississippi State gave completely and unexpectedly flat performance, and #18 Ole Miss took advantage with a 31-17 victory. The loss ended Bulldog hopes of winning or at least sharing the SEC’s Western Division title, and of holding their top-four position in the College Football Playoffs.

“I don’t want to say it ruins our season,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “It’s going to leave a bad taste in our mouths.”

For ‘bad’ read ‘bitter. Coming at the end of a schedule which had been so otherwise sweet made it even more so. Mississippi State (10-2, 6-2 SEC) still finished with its first ten-win regular season ever, and is assured of a quality bowl berth when assignments are made next weekend.

But it won’t be nearly as much of a celebration after humiliation in Oxford. The Rebels (9-3, 5-3) earned a better bowl berth of their own with the upset, and regained keeping of the Golden Egg. It was only the second loss in six Egg Bowls for Mullen, both coming in Oxford.

”We didn’t play our best game tonight, and that’s obvious,” QB Dak Prescott.

State certainly didn’t play well enough to offset a Rebel squad dialed-in just about perfectly on both sides of the ball. On just 62 snaps, the home team produced 532 yards. Actually most of the gains came on about 20% of Ole Miss snaps.

The Rebels scored on plays of 91, 32, and 31 yards directly; and had one-yard touchdown dives set up on big-hit passing plays of 46 and 83 yards where the late tackle only delayed things. Then again, late tackles were often better than the others State’s proud defense didn’t finish or missed on entirely.

Either way, the head coach wasn’t happy. “It’s one thing give up 20-yard plays,” Mullen said. “To give up 80 and 90s is not going to cut it.” Mullen even strongly suggested changes would come as a result. “That’s an absolutely pathetic job by our defensive staff. And not a great job by the offense.”

State did finish with a respectable-looking 445 yards offense, but on 84 snaps showing how much more explosive the Rebels were. Or perhaps how hard the Dogs struggled against the faster, aggressive Ole Miss squad. There were just two State snaps that went for more than 30 yards; both in passing, both in the second half, and not nearly enough.

As poor as the tackling was at times, Bulldog blocking had at least as much to do with defeat. Prescott managed only 48 yards and a touchdown on 24 runs, many un-called keepers as he was harassed constantly and sacked three times. Even knowing how well Ole Miss covers laterally, the Dogs did try getting to edges for a half and found none. Once they went back to power the Rebels were playing with confidence and simply whipping linemen, particularly both tackles.

State also started shuttling in runners early, with 1000-yard rusher RB Josh Robinson netting just 44 yards on 12 carries. After giving lightweight RB Brandon Holloway a chance, RB Ashton Shumpert took over most of the way for 68 yards on 10 runs. But not riding Robinson showed how out-of-synch the offense got early, and often. The first half was just about futile with only 128 yards total.

Instead the air game took precedence, particularly after State fell behind two scores. This produced much better, when Prescott had time to look and throw. He was 22-of-37 for 282 yards and the other touchdown. WR De’Runnya Wilson caught eight of his throws for 117 yards and an impressive 32-yard connection for the score which briefly had the Dogs back within a single series.

And no closer, not once the Rebels shook off the short 10-7 deficit after Prescott poked the ball across at 9:37 of the third quarter to complete a drive that could have turned the game. Perhaps should have even. Except Ole Miss had the counter, named Evan Engram. State was well-scouted for what the big tight end could do, and it didn’t matter.

He provided what might have been the biggest play of the entire day, too, and did it midway of the first period. The Rebels surprised State’s defense with their hardest running of the season to beat or break tackles right from the start, only to see a series end at the 17-yard line as CB Taveze Calhoun intercepted Bo Wallace’s end zone shot.

Next time with the ball, Wallace found Engram matched with LB Zach Jackson for a slant-route catch and runaway. Jackson did catch up at the one-yard line, allowing Wallace to get the touchdown credit. Engram was on his way to a 176-yard game on just five great big catches. This first one not only rattled the Dog defense, which was doing well covering deeper throws, but gave the home team an immeasurable boost of confidence.

All the Bulldogs could muster by halftime was a field goal from PK Evan Sobiesk, a career-best 45-yarder at that. But another drive ended on downs at the Ole Miss 35 when on 4th-and-3 with nobody else in the backfield Prescott tried right tackle and found no blocking or room. So the situation could have been far worse than 7-3 at intermission.

Then on the second turn of the second half the Bulldogs looked like their old selves at last. Prescott directed a 62-yard series mixing throws and runs with Shumpert providing some punch. Prescott was able to squirm within reach of the goal on a third down keeper. Any thought momentum had turned, was erased immediately.

Because again Engram got in no-man’s land behind linebackers and in front of safeties for the middle catch, and this time he got 83 yards before CB Will Redmond caught him at the one. On third down Jeremy Liggins vaulted right guard to regain the lead.

The back-breaker came on the next Rebel snap, after Devon Bell’s 61-yard punt was downed on the nine-yard line. Back Jaylen Walton didn’t have any room to run right, then ahead, so he swung back left behind traffic to slip one tackle, glance off another, and break in the clear for a 91-yard touchdown.

From there Ole Miss could afford to give State yards to the side and underneath as nothing got behind them. Prescott did lead a 75-yard touchdown drive with Wilson getting most of the gains on catches of 20 and 32. The Bulldogs also got the ball back on a three-and-out…but Prescott was sacked for loss of ten and soon State was punting.

Jordan Wilkins cut inside careless pursuit for a 41-yard gainer; then rolled right to draw in support before lofting a throw to Cody Core behind beaten Redmond for the touchdown. Wallace wasn’t efficient in the air at 13-of-30 but didn’t need to be with so many huge hits, for 296 yards. And compared to the pressure Prescott faced, the Rebel quarterback took only one sack and that very late in the day.

The last Bulldog hope ended at the four-yard line as Prescott’s corner throw for TE Brandon Hill, of all people, was high anyway at 1:52. The Rebels did not shut State down but didn’t have to with their big-play prowess. The biggest Dog was probably Bell with a 45.6-yard average which in most games could have turned field position in MSU favor. With all the busted coverages and missed tackles even good punting meant nothing.

”There’s plenty of blame to go around, if you’re going to play that way,” Mullen said.

The Bulldogs won’t be playing or practicing for a while now, with bowl destination to be assigned December 7. That won’t mean they are not re-playing the Egg Bowl in their minds. Prescott expects to apply the hard lessons.

”I mean we just have to fight adversity again. We’ve had success, but we’ve got to show we can continue to grow and get better after a loss.”

DT Kaleb Eulls had a senior’s perspective on how the schedule ended, but not the year. “It was a great season, a great run, a chance to do something never been done at Mississippi State.” Meaning, Eulls said, the Dogs won’t be deflated for this post-season. Nor should fans be.

“No. it doesn’t. The loss hurts, but I feel it doesn’t take any excitement at all out of the bowl game knowing we have another one to prepare for.”

Or as Shumpert said, “We’ve got to see which team we play in the bowl game, and we’ve got to beat them.”

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