Wins That Weren't

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A loss is a loss is a loss, right? Usually, yes. But for Ole Miss in 2012, three near-miss losses loom large as the final game of the season approaches next week.


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The Rebels are 5-6 overall and 2-5 in Southeastern Conference games after a 41-35 loss to No. 7 LSU on Saturday. This game followed the trend of Texas A&M and Vanderbilt: Ole Miss holds a fourth-quarter lead, Ole Miss blows a fourth-quarter lead.

And in each of those three losses, Ole Miss had only itself to blame.

"I've been coaching a long time," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "This year, I'd have to say, three of the most difficult locker rooms to be in. They keep bouncing back and fighting the next week. Proud of the effort given tonight, especially with us being short-handed. Our kids fought."

Indeed.

Give the Rebels credit; woefully undermanned, they went toe-to-toe with a superior team. They were better than LSU in two of three phases, offense and defense, but their special teams failed them.

To recap: Ole Miss allowed a punt return for a touchdown, muffed a punt return that led to an LSU field goal, managed a 14-yard punt and made at least a couple of boneheaded decisions to take kickoffs out of the end zone. All that was missing for the Yahtzee was an LSU touchdown on a kick return.

Up next is in-state rival Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl. One game left in the regular season. One last chance for Ole Miss to punch its ticket to the postseason, even if said ticket should've been punched weeks ago.

Think about it. Against Texas A&M, Ole Miss held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, only to see Johnny Manziel orchestrate a late-game comeback. Against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss was up, 23-6, in the third quarter. Vanderbilt outscored Ole Miss, 21-3, the rest of the way.


Hugh Freeze
Bruce Newman

It can be argued Ole Miss should be no worse than 6-5 right now. Heck, maybe even 7-4, with many wondering if a win over Mississippi State next week would push Ole Miss to the Gator Bowl or beyond.

Instead, here Ole Miss is, one game below .500 with one to play. To think, Ole Miss was 5-3 not even a month ago. Now? Losers of three straight.

"It's over with now," running back Randall Mackey, who had 85 total yards and a touchdown in the loss, said. "We've got one more game to go. We'll try to get that one."

Ole Miss wasn't close to full strength against LSU. Far from it, actually.

Ole Miss is down to 59 scholarship players, according to Freeze. Starting defensive end C.J. Johnson played but a few snaps due to a neck injury. Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace did his best to push through a bum throwing shoulder.

Still, they battled.

Wallace was 15 of 35 for 310 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His 54 rushing yards led the team.

Junior cornerback Charles Sawyer was hurt in the game, leaving Ole Miss to use Senquez Golson and Louis Covington -- a banged-up sophomore and a walk-on -- as its corners.

At one point, Ole Miss had Golson, Covington, sophomore Cody Prewitt, true freshman Mike Hilton and true freshman Trae Elston in its secondary. Elston's been plagued by injury, as well.

Still, they battled.

"People out there are watching us. They're watching these games," freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. "They see where we're at, and they see what we're working with. We're just going to work that much harder in the off-season. We've felt that hurt, and that's part of the game. Either use it positive or use it negative. We're going to use it positively."

Everything comes down to Ole Miss-Mississippi State. Appropriate. The Bulldogs handled Arkansas, 45-14, for their eighth win of the year on this same Saturday. They've won three straight in the series.

Freeze has often preached of sticking to the process. The process, he says, is what will lead Ole Miss "out of the wilderness."


Bo Wallace
Bruce Newman

Mississippi State is the next step in the process.

"It gives us that pissed-off edge. We're mad," Nkemdiche said of the close losses. "We're hurting. The only thing we can do is focus on the next team we play. Me and my teammates, we're going to be ready and prepared to play State."

Bowl eligibility is the next step. Beating Mississippi State is the next step. The stage is set for the first meaningful Egg Bowl in years. This is how it should be, even if it shouldn't be. I mean, Ole Miss should be playing for something more than its sixth win.

But it isn't.

To get past the demons of the last two seasons, to erase the disappointments of three close losses, beat Mississippi State. To push forward in recruiting, to build momentum for next season, beat Mississippi State.

Because Mississippi State matters. The Egg Bowl matters. This year, it means everything.


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