All on the Line

BATON ROUGE, La. - For better or for worse, Ole Miss faces a program-turning game a week from Saturday against Mississippi State.

It all comes down to Mississippi State.

After 11 mostly grueling games, including a 43-36 loss at No. 5 LSU Saturday, Ole Miss sits 4-7 overall and 1-6 in Southeastern Conference play. The 2010 season almost took a slight turn for the better inside the raucous confines of Tiger Stadium, but a final-gasp pass attempt from Jeremiah Masoli as time expired in the fourth quarter was intercepted by LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, sealing another frustrating loss.

Johnny Brown

In the state of Mississippi, the most significant game of every year is the annual "Battle of the Golden Egg." A win would act as a reprieve, if only for a day, from all that has gone wrong for a talented, but extremely flawed team.

"Well, this is the one (Mississippi State) I've been waiting on for a while," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said postgame. "It's gonna take 24 hours (to get over tonight's loss). We used a lot of energy right here tonight, lot of emotion. It's just an in-state rival. You share a state with somebody."

If ever there was a much-needed win, it would be a week from today. Because here at Death Valley, and despite its inspired, lay-it-all-on-the-line effort, Ole Miss surrendered to its inevitable fate – a winter spent at home rather than in a bowl.

"Very important," sophomore linebacker D.T. Shackelford said. "This (upcoming game) is something to build on, but also, we want to send our seniors out right. We know (Mississippi State head) Coach (Dan) Mullen will have his guys ready. They're a great team. We just have to make sure we come out ready to play."

A season most would soon forget comes down to one game, a program-turning meeting with the in-state rival, two days after all fill their stomachs with turkey and stuffing.

Basically, Ole Miss has to win. A maddening regular season could end on two high notes, taking, of course, tonight's heart-breaking loss to LSU into account. To parlay such an effort into a convincing win over Mississippi State would go far in redeeming some good will lost amongst the fanbase.

"This is our bowl game now," senior defensive tackle Jerrell Powe said. "We're definitely not going to hang our heads."

Every Ole Miss fan, from those devoted, boisterous few in the stands at Tiger Stadium, to the remainder venting frustrations and analysis on message boards, were hoping for a two-win, regular-season-ending close over Ole Miss' bitter rivals. The Rebels would have most assuredly been bowling for the third time in as many seasons, likely in Memphis, Tenn. for the Liberty Bowl.

But it didn't happen. It was a long shot, anyway. Ole Miss had losses to Jacksonville State, Vanderbilt and Tennessee on its resume entering Saturday's nationally-televised meeting with LSU. Everything had to go the Rebels' way to stand a chance.

Again, a long shot at best. This is the same team that can't avoid explosion plays or turnovers. Jeremiah Masoli's first pass attempt of the game was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted. LSU scored its first touchdown from 19 yards out three plays later.

Jeremiah Masoli

Still, there were positives. A defense ranked No. 107 nationally had some bright spots, even if it did surrender 43 points. Offensively, Ole Miss hung 36 points on the SEC's second-best defense, the most given up by the Tigers this season.

Ole Miss played its best game of the season. Masoli led an inspired effort offensively, and the Rebel defense played as well as could realistically be expected taking a season's worth of ineptitude into account.

Still, its reward was its sixth conference loss of the season, and the seventh loss overall. The effort, again, wasn't enough.

"Our guys just played their hearts out," Nutt said. "It's just like this season's been, just to come up too short."

A 41-27 loss in Starkville a season ago still rings fresh in the minds of Ole Miss' fanbase. Ole Miss was dominated in the game, the defense shredded and the offense turnover prone.

Sound familiar?

A year later, Ole Miss simply (cue the broken record) can't afford to lose next week. Yes, the Rebels are what they are: A team susceptible to explosion plays, turnovers, early deficits and, now, losing.

But there's no excuse next week, because the Egg Bowl is all that's left. The Rebels know Mississippi State and Mississippi State knows them. And Ole Miss showed against LSU it's capable of competing with good teams.

And, whether Ole Miss fans want to admit it, Mississippi State is a good team. Next week has to be the game to wipe the proverbial slate clean.

To quote Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, "Just win, baby."

"We're most definitely going to use it as motivation. It's been in our locker room since last year," Powe said. "Coach Nutt said it in the locker room after this game, how he's looking forward to it. He's been looking forward to it since last year."

All involved with Ole Miss football has thought about Mississippi State. The game will only be magnified with the monumental letdowns of 2010.

Again, just win, baby.

Because, for better or worse, it all comes down to Mississippi State.

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