Where to begin? At this point, any person reading this is well-aware of the exploits of one Shea Patterson, the former five-star prospect and No. 1 high school quarterback in the country who led his team to 23 fourth-quarter points and a come-from-behind, 29-28 win at No. 8 Texas A&M few saw coming. But let’s not forget the play of the Ole Miss defense. Senior defensive end Fadol Brown, for the second week in a row, led the team in tackles. Sure, six isn’t a whole heck of a lot, but considering Brown is playing on a once-injured foot that sidelined him for half the year and continues to bother him, he rarely came off the field and his contributions were impressive, as was his leadership. Freeze said at halftime, after the defense had surrendered 21 points and more of the disaster plays they’ve become known for this season, Brown and fellow senior Derrick Jones, whose emergence at cornerback is one of the better feel-good stories in a trying year, promised Freeze the defense would play for all 60 minutes, that they’d give the offense myriad chances to catch up.
They kept their word.
Ole Miss surrendered seven points in the second half, but more importantly, they continued to give Patterson and the Rebel offense opportunity after opportunity to fight back. Here’s how Texas A&M’s first five drives of the second half ended: Downs, punt, punt, punt, punt. Three of the punt-ending drives were three-and-outs. After the Aggies’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive, which pushed their lead to 28-19, Patterson engineered a quick, six-play scoring march, punctuated by his 32-yard touchdown strike to Van Jefferson. The defense followed by, again, forcing an Aggie three-and-out. Once Gary Wunderlich’s field goal was good, Deontay Anderson, two plays later, sealed the game with an interception.
The turnaround was equal parts impressive and surprising. After Texas A&M turned the ball over on downs on its first drive of the game, the Aggies scored touchdowns on three-straight possessions, including a 75-yard march in two plays, aided by a 60-plus-yard bust. Ole Miss is a win away from bowl eligibility. Patterson is the talk of the town, and rightfully so, but the defense deserves its due, as does Wunderlich, who made the game-winning 39-yard field goal, and has but one miss on the season. He’s one of 20 finalists for the Lou Groza Award for a reason.
There were other heroes Saturday, too. True freshman Greg Little was tasked with blocking all-world Aggie defensive end Myles Garrett pretty much all night. Garrett, albeit hobbled, finished with only one tackle. Anderson has battled confidence issues and inconsistent production all season. He grew up in the win, playing a healthy amount of snaps and finishing with three tackles along with his interception. Robert Conyers played when he probably shouldn’t have considering the state of his knees. He gutted it out, though, and left everything he had on the field. Same for Sean Rawlings. Like Conyers, Rawlings didn’t practice all week, but his team needed snaps. He gave them what he could. Akeem Judd rushed for 100 yards on 20 carries, and Ole Miss totaled 152 as a team. The Rebels are now 34-4 under Freeze when rushing for 150 or more yards and 5-19 when rushing for 150 or less.
A.J. Brown had four catches for a game-high and season-high 77 yards. As of this writing, he’s still stiff-arming that poor A&M cornerback. Damore’ea Stringfellow was interfered with all night, but he caught five passes for 74 yards and a touchdown anyway, even ignoring the second-worst non-PI call of the night and hauling in a 40-yard grab one-handed. I haven’t even mentioned Evan Engram and Van Jefferson and Marquis Haynes. On and on and on.
Ole Miss saved its season Saturday night, and it was far more than a one-man show.
The first half was bad. Heck, the third quarter wasn’t much better, at least offensively. Ole Miss has scored a total of 10 points in the third quarter in the last five weeks. Ten. Total. Points. The Rebels put up their third third-quarter goose egg in the last month, and first since LSU.
The way it was going Saturday, it sure seemed like Ole Miss was going to waste precious stops by the Rebel defense, stops they haven’t been able to get with any regularity for most of the season, and Freeze’s decision to pull Patterson in favor of Jason Pellerin not once, not twice but THREE times inside the 10 was/is hard to understand. But a win tends to gloss over all issues. Make no mistake, though, such issues will have to be corrected with a road trip to Vanderbilt up next, and the Egg Bowl fast-approaching.
Freeze said he decided Sunday to remove Patterson’s redshirt. It proved to be, without question, the right decision. He gave the true freshman his first career start on the road against the No. 8 team in the country in front of over 100,000 opposing fans. Oh, and with his team and fan base reeling. The kid checked every box anyway. We can all admit, not the ideal first start for such a prized signee and piece of the future, but so it was, and Patterson got better and better as the game went on. Freeze decided he was the quarterback who gave Ole Miss, and a deserving group of seniors, the best chance to win. Great call by the fifth-year head coach. But Patterson has to stay in, then, in the game’s most pivotal moments, especially considering he’s the best option to run or pass. He proved as much. Stick with the guy who got you there.
I’m not going to get too into too much of the ugly from last night. The win was too memorable. I wrote after the game in my column the win was a watershed moment for Ole Miss football. You’ll remember where you were when Shea Patterson debuted. So, I don’t want to throw much, if any, cold water on the much-needed celebration amongst Ole Miss fateful today.
Still, linebacker play continues to be an issue. I could dive into the numbers, but, I mean, Thanksgiving is almost here and the regular season is two weeks from wrapping. It is what it is at this point. The disconnect between the defensive coaches and the players making the calls on the field continues to mystify. Throw out the blown 60-plus-yard play, which was bad enough, but I keep thinking back to Speedy Noil, at the goal line, splitting out of the backfield and no defender going with him. Jake Hubenak literally took the snap, turned and soft-tossed to Noil for a touchdown. On third down. At the goal line.
Yes, there was some ugly. I could name more moments that would classify as such. But Ole Miss has positive program momentum again. It’s OK to savor one.