BATON ROUGE, La. – Bo Wallace said he wasn’t going to talk about it. Then he talked about it. “I missed,” the Ole Miss quarterback said late Saturday night as LSU fans chanted their way to the exits. “One on one. I threw it up. He made a play on it.”
He was LSU safety Ronald Martin, and he didn’t so much make a play as settle under a ball that appeared to have been chucked into the heavens accompanied by a prayer that it would land in anyone else’s hands. If Wallace had a plan when he threw it, it wasn’t readily apparent to any of the 102,231 people crammed into Tiger Stadium.
According to Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, the orders to Wallace when the offense returned to the field with nine seconds remaining were to look for a receiver in the flat who could take the ball out of bounds and leave time for a field goal attempt or to throw the ball out of bounds and leave time for a field goal attempt. But the proverbial “Bad Bo,” who had been conspicuously absent as Ole Miss won its first seven games, thought he saw something open in the end zone. A moment later, Wallace stared silently at the video board as he watched Martin intercept the pass again. Then Wallace walked into the tunnel before time expired. Later, he would say the shrieking frenzy that is Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night affected the Rebels’ offense. “We didn’t make the plays when we had to,” Wallace said. “It’s a crazy atmosphere. This is the craziest place I’ve played.”
Should Wallace and the offense have been on the field in the first place? That’s another question Rebels everywhere will ask for years if Saturday’s 10-7 loss to the Tigers prevents one of the best teams Ole Miss has ever fielded from reaching the first College Football Playoff. Freeze seemed comfortable with kicker Gary Wunderlich trying a 42-yarder from the right hashmark to tie the score. Then the Rebels were flagged for delay of game. “I’m going to have to watch the film,” Freeze said. “They stood over the ball, and I thought they had 12 men on the field for a long time.” Whatever the reason, a 42-yarder from the right hash became a 47-yarder from the right hash. Freeze deemed that too risky for Wunderlich and rolled the dice on the offense running one more play and leaving enough time for a field goal attempt. Tigers coach Les Miles has had to explain away more than one clock management debacle in this series. This time, Freeze had to admit his regret. “I wish I could do that over,” he said. “For sure.”
When the College Football Playoff selection committee meets Monday to deliberate its first set of rankings, it will have to consider Ole Miss – and possibly the entire SEC West – quite carefully. This wasn’t the 2011 LSU-Alabama matchup, a defensive masterpiece that ended with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime win. This game featured some excellent defense and vicious play. Heck, Tigers tailback Leonard Fournette had his facemask ripped off by a tackler. But the ferocity was mixed with slop. LSU tried to hand a win to the Rebels, and Ole Miss refused to take it.
The Tigers lost two fumbles, including one that squirted out just before Fournette crossed the goal line, and quarterback Anthony Jennings threw two interceptions. These are the same Tigers who were manhandled by Auburn, beaten soundly by Mississippi State’s starters and barely squeaked out a win against a mediocre Florida team. LSU has improved, but the committee will have to keep tabs during the coming weeks on whether Saturday’s win and last week’s pasting of Kentucky are the exception or the rule. With Auburn visiting Ole Miss next week and Alabama playing LSU and Mississippi State in consecutive weeks starting Nov. 8, the SEC West could be headed toward chaos.
For the Rebels to take part in that chaos, they’ll have to be better than what they showed Saturday. Ole Miss had a first-half touchdown called back because of a holding call. The Rebels managed only 107 second-half yards. They took the potential game-tying field goal off their kicker’s foot. After the loss, Freeze ran down an injury report that could have doubled as a list of the team’s most valuable players: defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety Cody Prewitt, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.
On the other side of the stadium Saturday night, Miles grinned as he cradled a game ball. His offense had been sloppy as well, but his defense had pitched a second-half shutout. The offense had its moment as well – a 13-play, 95-yard drive that ended when senior tight end Logan Stokes made his first career catch in the end zone with 5:07 remaining. Before the game, Stokes had told LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco that he would score his first career touchdown and give Rasco the ball. Stokes didn’t get the ball to Rasco. He can’t remember what he did with it in the celebratory stew. He remembers vividly seeing that Ole Miss lined up in the exact defense the Tigers had practiced that play against all week. “I kind of got a little bit giddy,” Stokes said. The play called for Stokes to lunge like he was cut-blocking Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. Stokes carried out his fake, but Golson hesitated a beat. Stokes worried Golson would blow up the play. But then Golson turned to look for the ballcarrier that Stokes’ poor excuse for a cut block had foretold. Stokes escaped into the end zone and grabbed the ball before Golson could recover. “When I got up, it was ‘Here we go,’” Stokes said. “I was wide open.”
Miles also seemed giddy that Stokes’ first catch had been a game-winner. “Secret. Weapon,” Miles said. “Don’t tell anybody.” The result allowed Miles to smile after 24 heavy-hearted hours. Miles thought he’d gotten bad news Friday night when he learned his son, Ben, had broken his ankle in a high school football game. But shortly after that, Miles learned his 91-year-old mother, Martha, had passed away at a Baton Rouge assisted living facility.
After watching their coach go through a hellish night, the Tigers decided they needed to pull the upset in honor of Miles and his late mother. “We kind of had a heart-to-heart last night,” Fournette said. “It was an emotional moment for sure. When he said that I thought about my mother and what would I do if I lost my mother? We dedicated this game to Miss Martha, for coach, for ourselves and our family. It was tough seeing him like that. That is a real man.”
After he broke down the win, Miles hugged the family members who had congregated to support him. Any sadness was masked by the joy of a win that seemed impossible three weeks ago. Miles had a gleam in his eye Saturday night when he described watching Wunderlich trot on the field for what was then a 42-yard attempt. Miles being Miles, he was worried Freeze might borrow a page from the Book of Les and try something more daring. “It made me nervous as hell,” Miles said. “If he tries a three-pointer, that’s certainly a tie and we’re going into overtime. Certainly if he tries something else, that could be another ending – one that we’d all be miserable with right now.”
They tried something else, but the result wasn’t what Freeze asked for or what Wallace expected. Instead, LSU students stormed the field.
Think about that. They stormed the field at LSU to celebrate a win against Ole Miss. It only gets weirder from here.