OXFORD, Miss. -- Before he unleashed his team from the locker room on Saturday, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze left the Rebels with a parting message.
Move out of the way when they tear the goalposts down.
“I swear to God he said it before the game,” Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche said. About 20 minutes earlier, the goalposts had indeed fallen as the bowtied, sundressed and seersuckered masses swarmed the field following the No. 11 Rebels’ 23-17 victory over No. 3 Alabama. “That right there showed me the confidence from everybody on the team. We knew we could do this. We knew we could do something special.”
There will be time later to parse the deeper meaning of the win. After all, the SEC West remains a puzzle. The Rebels were kings on Saturday and could very well lose next week at Texas A&M. Meanwhile, Bama will head to Arkansas without tailback Kenyan Drake (broken leg) and possibly without center Ryan Kelly (knee) and linebacker Denzel Devall (ankle). Anyone who claims to know the identity of the best team in the West is either a liar or a loon. For now just sit back and enjoy the drama.
Ole Miss players believed from start to finish on Saturday. Even when they sat in the locker room down 14-3 at halftime following a touchdown that never should have happened. Even as their coach’s confidence lagged for a moment, they knew they could be the team that beat Alabama for the first time since Eli Manning’s Rebels did in 2003.
Freeze’s moment of doubt came just before half. He thought he saw something in Alabama’s defense that Ole Miss could exploit. Freeze tried the play when the Rebels got the ball on their own 18-yard line with 51 seconds left in the second quarter after a Crimson Tide punt. Quarterback Bo Wallace got the ball to tailback I’Tavius Mathers, but Bama cornerback Cyrus Jones charged before Mathers could turn upfield. Jones got his hand caught in Mathers’ facemask and twisted his helmet. Jones also knocked the ball free.
As Mathers looked for the flag, Jones scooped up the ball and ran 13 yards to the end zone. As boos rained on head linesman Chad Green, who witnessed the foul from a few feet away and kept his flag in his belt, Freeze despaired. Not because of the missed call, but because he had put his team in a position to hand Bama seven points instead of running out the clock and going to halftime trailing by four. “I felt like my heart got ripped out right before the half on the fumble for points there,” Freeze said. “I felt very confident all week. That’s the only time I started to waver a bit.”
(That wasn’t the only egregious missed call on Saturday. In the second quarter officials also missed Ole Miss safety Trae Elston kicking at the head of Alabama tailback Drake as Drake lay on the field writhing in pain with a broken leg. The SEC office may step in and suspend Elston just as it did Mississippi State center Dillon Day, who sat out of Saturday’s win over Texas A&M because he stomped on an LSU player in the Bulldogs’ previous game.)
Even if Freeze’s confidence wavered, his players’ conviction did not. Senior corner Senquez Golson stood up at halftime and told his teammates they would learn who they were in the second half. Golson wanted to use this meeting with Alabama to show how much he had improved over the course of his career. As a freshman, Golson became a permanent fixture on Bama tailback Trent Richardson’s highlight reel in the most embarrassing fashion possible. As Richardson reached the 61-yard mark of a 76-yard touchdown run on Oct. 15, 2011, he juked Golson out of his jock. Golson was referenced on the ESPN broadcast as “poor true freshman Senquez Golson” as the Tide rolled to a 52-7 win that was fairly representative of the Rebels’ 2-10 campaign. That season got coach Houston Nutt and athletic director Pete Boone fired and got Freeze and current AD Ross Bjork hired.
Freeze would recruit the players who would make the Rebels capable of competing with Alabama, but holdovers like Golson yearned to prove they could hang with the SEC’s best teams before they left. “I owed them,” Golson said. “I knew since the summer that I was going to have to play the best game of my life against Bama.”
Golson would get his chance to finally repay the Tide, but first another much-maligned Rebel had to say his piece. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, known alternately as “Good Bo” or “Bad Bo,” depending on the moment, had to prove against an elite opponent that he could deliver a win instead of delivering the ball into the hands of the defense. Wallace is also known by another nickname: Dr. Bo. The definition of that moniker also changes depending on when Wallace has thrown his most recent interception. When Wallace is forcing passes, the nickname is pure sarcasm. When he’s tossing back-shoulder darts, as he did to wide receiver Laquon Treadwell on several occasions Saturday, it stems from the fact that some of his throws can be downright surgical in their precision.
With 5:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, Wallace hit Vince Sanders for a 34-yard touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Ole Miss defensive end Channing Ward forced Bama’s Christion Jones to fumble, and Rebels defensive back Kalio Moore recovered on the Crimson Tide 31-yard line. One of those back-shoulder beauties to Treadwell gave the Rebels first-and-goal from the nine. Two plays later Wallace connected with Jaylen Walton for a 10-yard score and a six-point lead. Still, the Rebels couldn’t relax. Kicker Gary Wunderlich banged the extra point off the left upright, but a roughing the kicker penalty gave him another chance. Wunderlich’s second kick was blocked by Alabama cornerback Tony Brown.
The Crimson Tide used a selection of their offensive toys to move the ball down the field. Jones caught a 17-yard pass. Tailback T.J. Yeldon blasted ahead for eight yards. Amari Cooper took a short pass and turned it into a 30-yard gain. Maybe the party in The Grove wouldn’t continue. Then, on second-and-three from the Ole Miss 22-yard line, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims took off running. He reached the first-down marker, but umpire Wally Hough had dropped a flag just as Sims crossed the line of scrimmage. Hough had spied sophomore tight end O.J. Howard holding. The play was wiped out, and suddenly Bama faced second-and-13 from the 32. “We get a holding penalty, and that puts you in a long yardage,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It puts you in a different situation, different kind of plays that you need to call.”
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin called a shot into the end zone for the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Howard. As Sims threw, Golson jumped the route. The 5-9 Golson should have had no chance against the much bigger Howard, but Golson, a former outfielder on the Rebels’ baseball team, saw a big, fat pop fly. He jumped to catch the ball. When he landed with it, he knew the Rebels had just won the game.
Except that officials had ruled Golson out of bounds. According to them, the pass was incomplete. It was third down for Alabama. Golson couldn’t believe it. At first, he thought he didn’t land in bounds. Then he remembered it was Saturday, not Sunday. “I kind of got mad for a minute,” Golson said. “Then I realized we’re in college. One foot’ll work!”
The call came down that the play would be reviewed. As he donned a headset to communicate with the replay official, referee Matt Loeffler stared at the giant video screen in the end zone, which clearly showed Golson landing with a foot in bounds. Loeffler had to wait for the replay official to make a determination, but he probably already knew the answer.
Meanwhile, on the Ole Miss sideline, another Kiffin was freaking out. Chris Kiffin, Lane’s brother and the Rebels’ defensive line coach, was scrambling to round up his players, who were busy celebrating. Nkemdiche told his coach Kiffin to relax. “Coach Kiffin was still going crazy,” Nkemdiche said. “He was like ‘It’s third-and-13. I’ve got to get a rush called.’ I was like, ‘Coach, look at the screen.’”
Moments later, Loeffler flipped on his microphone. “After further review,” he said, “the ball was intercepted in the end …”
The word “zone” was lost in the roar. Ole Miss ran out the clock, and a party that had raged all of Friday night and into Saturday found a second wind. As fans streamed over the walls, Ole Miss players ran smiling toward their locker room.
The goal posts would remain upright only a few more minutes. The Rebels were getting out of the way, just as Freeze had promised they would have to.