Photo credit: Joshua McCoy –Ole Miss Athletics
- Story by Sportstalk Mississippi Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee
Stay tuned for additional Egg Bowl coverage from MSU Beat Reporter Brian Hadad.
STARKVILLE, Miss — Hiked leg and all, Ole Miss pissed away an opportunity to win the 2019 Egg Bowl.
The Rebels fell 21-20 to a fragile, five-win Mississippi State team inside Davis-Wade Stadium. The finish was baffling, yet somehow fitting. Trailing 21-14 with 126 seconds remains in its season, Ole Miss put together a 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that included a fourth-and-24 conversion, two illegal formation penalties, a fourth-down conversion on an offsides and culminated in a two-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Moore with four seconds left in regulation.
What happened next underscored the pettiness and vitriol of a rivalry that has now directly affected the outcome of one of its games. Perhaps as an homage to D.K. Metcalf’s infamous touchdown celebration in 2017, Moore got down on all fours, hiked his leg and pretended to urinate like a dog in the end zone, directly in front of a referee no less, who promptly flagged Moore 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Just disappointed in him,” a dejected Matt Luke said. “That’s not who he is. He is a good kid that just got caught up in the moment.”
It backed up the most crucial extra-point try of the season 15 additional yards and applied increased pressure to troubled kicker Luke Logan, who had made 11-of-19 field goal kicks on the season and was 33-of-36 on extra points. A glorified 36-yard field goal to send the game into overtime sailed wide right as the stadium erupted in a state of both shock and euphoria.
“I think Luke is plenty capable,” Luke said. “He just needs to work on it. He sees that he is really, really good. He just needs to go do it when it counts. I have a lot of confidence in him. He is disappointed but he will bounce back. I told him that I am with him and behind him.”
An incredibly selfish act by the team’s best wide receiver put an increased burden on a struggling kicker that did not make a kick over 40 yards the entire season and inflicted a sour end to a frustrating season for Ole Miss. It was the fifth and most costly penalty in a sloppy game that leaves the program with more questions than answers heading into the offseason.
“I didn’t really have a good look at it,” quarterback John Rhys Plumlee said. “When you’re excited you celebrate a little bit… The call didn’t go our way.”
Logan would’ve gotten a normal-length try had the penalty not occurred. Luke said after the game his 4-7 football team was playing for overtime. He felt like they were in a good spot with three banged up running backs, quarterback indecision and a defense that gave up 210 yards on the ground.
The last drive was a success rendered moot by an inexplicably selfish act. But it was also a fitting final quest for these 2019 Ole Miss Rebels. The quarterback the program spent the entire offseason anointing as its future — the same one it turned the page on after just four games — led an 82-yard march after being inserted in the fourth quarter in place of Plumlee, who was bottled up rushing the football by the Bulldog defense. Corral threw 10 times on the drive. He hit Braylon Sanders on a prayer over the middle of the field to convert a fourth-and-24 and Moore for the would-be tying score. In a season of quarterback uncertainty that saw the coaching staff aimlessly rotate the two for a couple weeks, then turn solely to Plumlee and go as far as Luke calling him “the guy,” in a press conference, only to switch back to Corral in the season’s final 10 minutes, further muddied an unclear picture at the most important position on the field.
Luke felt the offense needed a spark and Corral was the man to supply it. Rodriguez did too.
“We knew we had to throw,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “We were running okay but not executing great. At the end, we knew we had to throw and Matt is the better thrower. I thought he gave us a spark.”
The irony in it all is that this was one of Plumlee’s better games throwing the football. He was 9-of-14 for 121 yards and no turnovers. On Ole Miss’ first scoring drive alone, he hit three different receivers on completions of 12, 21 and 27 yards. It was the first real evidence of Plumlee being capable of pushing the football down the field. What does it mean going forward? Luke balked at addressing the quarterback situation. Rodriguez maintained it has always been an open competition and Plumlee echoed that saying he and Matt compete every day.
“It’s a fair question. With the way we run the program, I think there are open competitions everywhere,” Rodriguez said. “We have to foster that at every position. Guys like John Rhys, Jerrion and Matt want that. They want the competition.”
Ole Miss, of course, lost this game long before Logan’s kick sailed wide right or Moore’s leg swung upward. The Rebels turned the football over three times in plus territory. Ealy fumbled on the first possession as Ole Miss drove down the field with ease and was just 32 yards away from taking an early lead. Corral threw an interception at the one-yard line. Ole Miss was gashed for 209 yards on the ground and the top rushing offense in the SEC mustered just 145 yards. It averaged three yards per rush and 16.3 per completion.
Mississippi State did a masterful job of containing Plumlee. The Bulldogs prevented him from getting to the edge and dared a pair of freshman running backs to beat them. Plumlee had just 38 yards on 14 carries. Ole Miss was so out of sorts it threw for 106 more yards than it rushed. Imagine reading that sentence in early October when Plumlee entered the picture.
Ole Miss didn’t do much to seize control of this game either. Luke punted on fourth and five at midfield in the fourth quarter of a game he trailed. He elected to play for overtime at the end before Moore took the decision out of his hands. This game meant nothing more than pride for Luke and the Rebels, and yet they played like the fear of losing it outweighed the desire to win it.
“We just made too many mistakes and came up short,” Luke said, a common refrain after another excruciating defeat.
This offseason will be littered with uncertainty. What’s the identity of this offense going forward? Who will be leading it both in the booth and under center? Luke said he didn’t anticipate any staff changes. Rodriguez acknowledged it would be naive not to wonder whether there will be attrition at the quarterback position. Corral will likely explore options elsewhere. He caught a raw deal in all of this after all. Plumlee will try to balance baseball and spring football and Luke will need to address the special teams woes.
The 2019 campaign was always going to be a trying one for a program still escaping the haze of NCAA sanctions. But the Rebels had multiple opportunities to show progress in the form of wins and failed to do so repeatedly. This night was an opportunity for an easy selling point heading into the offseason.A shiny object to point to when asked to cite progress and the Rebels let it slip away.
Wins over Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana and New Mexico State don’t move the needle for an increasingly apathetic fan base. The 2020 season should be dubbed the year of results with a daunting and front-loaded looming and a fan base growing restless. Whether or not those results come in the form of wins will seal Luke’s fate.
“We are going to get through this together,” Luke said. “We are going to build this thing. This is not the end, it is the beginning. We will battle and fight together.”