There was the time the former Rebel wide receiver was on the receiving end of the deciding two-point conversion in the 1997 Egg Bowl, when Ole Miss rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. Or his overtime touchdown catch against LSU — a game in which the Rebels used 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to tie — in 1998. Peterson caught a Romaro Miller pass on second-and-10 from the 25, but before he crossed the goal line, he was hit and the ball popped free. Peterson, however, stayed with it, and while laying on his back and two defenders draped on him, the ball fell back into his hands as he went into the end zone.
He’s remembered for his 92-yard punt return against SMU in 1998 — the fifth-longest punt return in school history — that helped facilitate an Ole Miss comeback for the ages. The Rebels overcame a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 48-41 in overtime, and Peterson’s 181 yards on 16 catches were no small part of the heroics. And who can forget the ‘Payback’ game in 1999? Peterson secured a 23-yard touchdown from Miller to beat Auburn and hand former Ole Miss head coach Tommy Tuberville his first loss to his former team, and on the Plains, no less.
“The Egg Bowl, definitely,” Peterson said of the game he gets asked about the most. “Not as much anymore, but still every once in a while I get that question. I love hearing from a fan or whoever it is saying, ‘Hey, I remember when you caught that pass. I was at the game or with my family celebrating Thanksgiving.’ I always like hearing their reaction to it and that great win that our team had in ’97 to get us to the Motor City Bowl.”
But the good times for Peterson and Ole Miss didn’t come until after the program was dealt its toughest test yet. Ole Miss was handed down a four-year probation period by the NCAA in 1994, which included a two-year postseason ban, a one-year television ban and a reduction of 24 scholarships over a two-year period.
Peterson, who finished his career with 1,843 receiving yards, signed amidst it all.
Over 20 years later, Ole Miss is dealing with similar uncertainty. After a five-year investigation, the NCAA issue the Rebels a Notice of Allegations that included lack of institutional control, and head coach Hugh Freeze familiar to monitor, on top of 21 allegations of impropriety. Ole Miss will dispute LOIC and failure to monitor, among others.
Ole Miss was 5-7 overall in 2016.
“Coach Freeze has handled it as good as you can handle it,” Peterson said. “It’s a tough situation with the NCAA ‘cause they’re just so unpredictable. It was obviously a tough year because of injury, and recruiting you’ve got every other school saying things against you. I know it’s been tough; lost a lot of coaches that went to other schools.
“But our core, with depth on offense and defense, is in a very good place right now. I’m looking forward to seeing this offensive coordinator (Phil Longo) doing his thing and looking forward to seeing (QB Shea) Patterson develop. We’ve been there before with probation. I know there’s still going to be a black cloud over us because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but that’s out of our control now. These guys just need to go in and play hard. We’re going to support them at the games, and I think we’ve got a special group of players on this team and great leadership with the seniors that are coming back.”
Ole Miss self-imposed a one-year bowl ban for 2017, and the Rebels are set to issue their official response to the NCAA in May. They’ll likely meet with the Committee on Infractions well into the season, roughly around late-October or early-November.
Peterson said, as a player, the best way to handle such circumstances is simply to go out and play. Ole Miss returns a number of key contributors, from Patterson, five starters along the offensive line and wide receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, to decorated defensive end Marquis Haynes, defensive tackles Benito Jones and Breeland Speaks, linebacker DeMarquis Gates and more.
“All you can do is go out there and play hard.” Peterson said. “I know we’re not going to a bowl game this year, but keep fighting. We’ve been there before in probation. Who knows what’s going to happen? Quite honestly, I know everyone in Rebel Nation is getting tired of hearing it from other people, but it’s just a part of college football. It’s the ugly part of it. Things happen and mistakes happen. The NCAA’s got that book of 900 pages of rules and regulations.
“But we’re going to overcome it. We have before, and that probation was almost the death penalty. We came out of it and went to a bowl game the first year after probation. I think the future’s bright with these guys. The talent here now versus when we were on probation 20 years ago is obviously a lot higher. We’ve just got to get guys that believe in Ole Miss and believe in the program and what coach Freeze is doing. I want to see him there a long time. I have always enjoyed watching him. I think he’s an incredible coach and mentor to these young players. It’s going to be a great year. We’ll get through this.”