Ole Miss’ mission in the Sugar Bowl was to demonstrate that it’s a better team and program than it showed a year ago in a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl.
The Rebels were on the dishing-out end of a thrashing this time, beating Oklahoma State 48-20 on Friday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I was supremely confident all day,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I told the kids to make the most of the moment. I told them, ‘you’ve prepared well, you’re going to play well.’ ”
They were sluggish for nearly the entire first quarter before Chad Kelly threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Cody Core to break a 3-3 tie with 20 seconds left and Ole Miss was off and running.
Kelly threw three touchdown passes, the next two going to junior All-Southeastern Conference receiver Laquon Treadwell, who may have been playing his last college game before heading to the NFL, as the Rebels built a 34-6 halftime lead. Kelly, who completed 21-of-33 for 302 yards, finished with four touchdown passes and Treadwell caught three of them.
Treadwell showed off his versatility by throwing a 45-yard completion to Jordan Wilkins, which set up Treadwell’s second touchdown. It was Treadwell’s third completion in as many passes this season for a total of 134 yards.
During the postgame ceremony at which Kelly was given the Most Valuable Player trophy, he led the Ole Miss fans in a loud chant of “one more year.”
Treadwell wasn’t the only potential first-round draft choice that had a chance to show off.
Ole Miss finished the half with a bang as Kelly tossed a lateral to standout offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil for a 2-yard touchdown run as time expired.
The Cowboys never recovered.
“From he first bowl workout we had a mindset that we were going to win this game,” Kelly said. “We were coming down here on a business trip, not just to have fun in New Orleans.”
As for another highly regarded Rebels NFL prospect, the absence of suspended defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche was hardly noticeable.
Ole Miss shut down the Cowboys’ high-scoring offense (41 points per game, ninth most in the country), keeping it out of the end zone until the final 71 seconds of the third quarter.
“Our kids were really motivated to play with an edge on defense,” Freeze said. “We had a good plan and our guys played really hard.”
The Rebels have made a bowl appearance in each of Freeze’s four seasons, but it was last year’s game that was a benchmark in multiple ways.
Earning an inaugural berth in one of the New Year’s Six bowls so soon after Freeze took over a program that had gone 2-10 showed just how far Ole Miss had come in his brief tenure.
But the lackluster performance against TCU showed the Rebels had a ways to go in learning how to handle themselves on such a big stage. When they arrived in New Orleans the day after Christmas, several players admitted that they had lacked the proper focus needed in last year’s bowl game.
They said the focus had been much improved in practices on campus, even amid Nkemdiche’s suspension for being arrested for marijuana possession after falling at a hotel in Atlanta.
Freeze said he and his staff had adjusted the preparation routine with an eye toward being sharper in their second consecutive trip to a New Year’s Six bowl.
He said he had the team practice throughout the time on campus after breaking early for Christmas last season. Once arriving in New Orleans, he said the practices times and routines were more consistent.
“Coach Freeze set the tone (for the bowl practices),” Treadwell said. “He let us know that this year he was definitely going to hold us accountable, that we were going to play with pride, and it showed tonight.”
Whether it was the change in practice routine, the determination borne from the embarrassment a year earlier, or perhaps just being a more mature team, Ole Miss left the Superdome having done exactly what it had been thinking about doing ever since it left the Georgia Dome after the Peach Bowl loss.
“We had a blast,” Freeze said.