COLUMN: Cruel and Unusual

His face told the story, eyes filled with tears and looks and hushes of concern overwhelming Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

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The injury was bad, and Laquon Treadwell knew it. Everyone in attendance knew it, including Hugh Freeze, some 20 yards downfield when the Play That Changed Everything occurred.

“He’s definitely got a fracture,” the Ole Miss head coach would say afterwards, his team now 7-2 following a brutal 35-31 loss to Auburn. “It was obvious even to me. If I could see it, I know that (the trainers) could see it.”

His left foot bent in a way feet aren’t supposed to bend, an all-out play by the sophomore wide receiver to give the Rebels a final-minute lead. The official word: fractured fibula and a broken ankle. He was taken into surgery late into the night.

Treadwell’s face swelled with tears as he lay on the Hollingsworth Field turf. Quarterback Bo Wallace fought back tears, too, when talking about the injury with a scrum of reporters postgame.

One yard. One play. One. The Play That Changed Everything.

“We love each other and will fight for each other the rest of the season,” sophomore tight end Evan Engram, who finished with 123 receiving yards on eight catches, said.

“In one play, it could be gone.”

Twice in the final seven minutes Ole Miss moved inside the Auburn five. Twice the Rebels turned the ball over, the final victim Treadwell, who, like Engram, had a monster game. He hauled in 10 catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

The play, a 19-yard catch, was initially ruled a touchdown. Replay proved otherwise, and Ole Miss and its long-suffering fans were dealt the most agonizing gut-punch in school history.

The Rebels had everything in front of them. The initial College Football Playoff rankings were released on Tuesday. Ole Miss was No. 4, trailing SEC West foes Auburn and Mississippi State, ranked No. 3 and No. 1, respectively.

A win meant surviving for another day. A win meant a shot at a national championship was still alive. A win meant the dream of finally reaching Atlanta and winning the SEC with what but a few weeks ago was widely considered one of, if not the best, Ole Miss teams to ever take the field.

Attempt to argue Billy Cannon’s punt return or whatever was worse. You’ll be wrong.

“It’s just a really, really sickening way to lose,” Freeze said.

There’s plenty still left to play for, sure, and it would be foolish to give up on this crop of Rebels. Never before has Ole Miss had such a resilient group, a group focused on nothing but the task at hand and playing for each other. They believe and they care, from a transformed Senquez Golson on down to reserve cornerback Cliff Coleman. Two players who weren’t expected to make it, who shouldn’t have made it, when Freeze signed on to be coach three years ago.

“I’m a senior, so I’m going to do everything in my power to get my team ready for the next game,” linebacker Serderius Bryant said. “We just have to keep going. I went from 2-10 (in 2011) to where we are now. I need them to keep going with me and make my senior year a great year.”

They’ll keep going. They’ll put the game in the trash on Sunday, as they always do. But this is the toughest test Freeze and staff have faced in three seasons. Losing to LSU is one thing. What happened the night after Halloween, the scene of one of the good guys, Treadwell, lying helplessly on the field in pain, is another matter entirely.

“Our season’s still alive, we feel like. We’re going to keep fighting,” Wallace said.

A lot would have to go Ole Miss’ way to get back in the SEC West and playoff hunt. Yes, there is a route to get there. But the Rebels no longer control their own destiny. They’ll need help. The LSU loss eliminated the margin for error.

But honestly, winning means everything and nothing. When Treadwell went down, his teammates surrounded him. They attempted to rally for him, stopping Auburn in its final position and handing the ball to the offense for a final-gasp last drive that ended with a failed variation of a hook-and-ladder.

They fell short.

I’ve been around Ole Miss all of my 28 years. Few fan bases have suffered through more. And despite it all, despite the long-standing and justifiable cynicism, the looming sense of impending doom and well-earned doubts, they’ve cared all season. As Ole Miss opened with seven consecutive wins, they finally accepted what was in front of them. They embraced being better, shedding their vulnerability and going all in on what was shaping up to be an historic season. An example? The unbridled joy of beating Alabama resulting in fans storming the field and ripping down not one, but two goal posts.

They showed up in full force Saturday, a crowd of 62,090, the third-largest in stadium history, straining their collective vocal chords until they all but gave out. They hung on every play, erupted when Treadwell went in for what was, if for only a few minutes, the touchdown that changed everything.

And it did change everything. Just not in the way it was supposed to.

This wasn't simply a 'We Are Ole Miss' moment. This was worse.

It was cruel.

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