Ole Miss has long been out of the Southeastern Conference West Division race and has yet to become bowl eligible. But Saturday, the Rebels extended their lead in the statistic no one keeps, or wants.
Having already seen apparent wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt melt away in the final two minutes, Ole Miss earned the trifecta in this dubious category when Jeremy Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run with 15 seconds left in the game gave LSU a 41-35 victory margin in Tiger Stadium.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, maybe not at this level, but this year I have to say this is three of the most difficult locker rooms to be in this year,” said first-year Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze. “They keep bouncing back and fighting the next week. We’re real proud of them as coaches.
“We just can’t seem to get the stop when we have to have one, or the touchdown when we have to have one, or the play. But our kids sure made a lot of plays against a talented football team. Give (LSU) Coach (Les) Miles and them credit. I think it was a great game in this rivalry tonight. It’s just unfortunate that we can’t celebrate one of these.”
The loss is the Rebels’ (5-6) third straight in games in which victory would have given them the magic sixth win that produces a postseason bowl invitation. This one also came just a week after Vanderbilt scored with 52 seconds left to take a 27-26 win in Oxford, Miss.
Losing on the road to the eighth-ranked Tigers was widely expected. The injury-thinned Rebels were a 19-point underdog, came into the game dressing only 59 scholarship players and lost cornerback Charles Sawyer to a shoulder injury during the game. Starting quarterback Bo Wallace (15 of 35, 310 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs; 11 rushes, 79 yards, 2 TDs) had been hit enough on his throwing shoulder that Freeze made good on his announced plan to spell him often with Barry Brunetti (1 of 2, 6 yards; 8 rushes, 17 yards).
But, though erratic, Wallace torched the Tigers frequently. He kept the ball on a read option, made Eric Reid and Craig Loston miss and ran 58 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Two series later, receiver Donte Moncrief took a medium-range throw and got past Reid for a 56-yard score that put the Rebels up 14-7.
“It was tough,” Wallace said. “You could definitely tell early I was hurting a little bit. At the same time, we’re a game away from bowl eligibility. It doesn’t matter how bad I’m hurting. I’ve got to make a play if I’m out there.”
The sophomore quarterback made seven completions of 20 or more yards, including a 30-yard strike to Moncrief that gave the Rebels a 35-28 lead with 11:11 left in the game.
“They’re an athletic team that believes they can get up and play press (coverage), and we wanted to challenge that,” Freeze said. “I think our guys had success doing it. We wanted to keep coming back to it. We wanted to stay aggressive when we got the lead and wanted to take some shots. It cost us some sacks because that defensive front is so talented, and it’s tough to protect all the time.”
For much of the game, the protection held up. But, after Odell Beckham Jr. returned a Jim Broadway punt 89 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 35-35 with 9:10 remaining, the Tiger defensive front turned back the Rebels’ last threat. After Wallace scrambled for time and connected with Randall Mackey for 37 yards to the LSU 16, running back Jeff Scott was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, and Wallace was sacked on consecutive plays for losses of 11 and 7 yards. Bryson Rose’s 53-yard field goal attempt was wide right.
That set the stage for LSU’s game-winning drive, a 64 yard march aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty against freshman linebacker Dexter Nkemdiche. For Freeze, déjà vu set in.
“I thought if we scored 35 we’d win the game, but we gave them some short fields and our defense gets worn down,” he said. “You see it the last few weeks. There’s got to be fatigue at some point.”
That leaves Ole Miss needing to beat in-state rival Mississippi State next week to earn a bowl bid.
“We’ve had a lot of heartbreaks this year,” said cornerback Senquez Golson, who had two interceptions. “We’ve got one more game left. We’re going to try to play 60 minutes. We know we can play with the best.”