Sunday November 2nd, 2014

OXFORD, Miss. -- Ambulance lights pierced the night sky at 9:58 p.m. The vehicle rolled up a ramp from the bowels of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, inched through the concourse area and proceeded to part a thicket of postgame traffic. The flashing lights and deafening sirens cut through the haunting silence and fog-like daze that enveloped the entire area.

No. 4 Ole Miss lost to No. 3 Auburn, 35-31, on Saturday night in the most macabre sequence imaginable. A day-long party that gave way to a classic back-and-forth contest ended with a haunting play that indelibly altered the game and the national title race and sent Ole Miss’ best player to the hospital.

A day that percolated with such palpable promise in Oxford ended with the game lost, national titles hopes all but vanquished and star receiver Laquon Treadwell in the back of an ambulance. The game that appeared won was suddenly lost, and devastated Ole Miss coaches and players were left trying to figure out how it all happened. “It’s just a really, really sickening way to lose,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.

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With 1:30 remaining in the game, Treadwell caught a screen pass on the 22-yard line, broke two tackles and willed his way to the end zone with Auburn linebacker Kris Frost clinging to the back of his uniform. The officials signaled a touchdown that put Ole Miss ahead 37-35. But when Rebels receiver Evan Engram ran to the end zone to celebrate, he heard Treadwell screaming in pain. Suddenly, everything changed.

As Frost pulled Treadwell toward him to tackle him -- legally, as he grabbed the jersey with his left hand below the No. 1 on Treadwell’s back and not by the collar -- Frost’s left knee wedged atop Treadwell’s left foot. Treadwell’s ankle rolled gruesomely underneath the knee. The combination of Frost’s forward momentum sliding toward Treadwell and the unfortunate placement of Treadwell’s foot as Frost jerked him back jarred the ball loose and led to a wince-inducing moment. The replays on ESPN brought back visceral memories of watching injuries to Joe Theismann and Kevin Ware. The injury was later declared a fracture and sent Treadwell to the hospital.

The game drama and human drama played out at the same time. Engram said things started moving “a thousand miles an hour,” as concerned teammates gathered around. Fans celebrating the 37-35 Ole Miss lead suddenly looked on with concern. Trainers came out with a cart, and replay officials soon came to the conclusion that Treadwell’s fumble came less than a yard short of the goal line. Officials wiped the touchdown off the board, and since Auburn’s Cassanova McKinzy recovered the loose ball in the end zone, the Tigers needed to just drain 90 seconds to secure the victory.

“One second we thought we had the game won and in the end zone,” Engram said, “and the next second you lose the ball and our brother is down and the game is pretty much over.”

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The human emotion for the severity of Treadwell’s injury overtook the angst from the loss. Treadwell not only suffered a fracture to his leg, but Auburn’s Jonathan Jones delivered a late hit with his right shoulder crushing into Treadwell’s facemask. The late hit wasn’t called. It somehow managed to make a nightmare moment even darker.

“It hurts,” Engram said. “It’s really tough. That’s the bitterness in my mouth right now, losing him. I’m not really worried about the loss. It sucks. The loss sucks, but losing Laquon is a lot tougher.”

The hollow looks from the Ole Miss players showed that they lost much more than a game. Treadwell will be out for the rest of the season. He is just a sophomore, but he’s Ole Miss’ most explosive offensive weapon, catching 10 balls for 103 yards and a touchdown on Saturday night. He is also a vocal leader and the player whose commitment to Ole Miss changed the program’s recruiting paradigm. Freeze knew the grisly reality of the injury as soon as he saw it. “He definitely has a fracture,” Freeze said. “It was obvious, even to me. I don’t know anything other than that. I can’t tell you the details of it.”

The reaction to the injury trumped the drama of the game, which Ole Miss could have won and should have won. The Rebels turned the ball over twice deep in Auburn territory in the final seven minutes. The first turnover came when Auburn’s Derrick Moncrief stripped Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace while the quarterback was lying atop a pile of linemen on the Auburn 6-yard line with 6:31 remaining. “My momentum was down,” he said. “I don’t know why the whistle wasn’t blown.”

Wallace played so well all night, throwing for 362 yards and two touchdowns, avoiding interceptions and rushing for 61 yards and another touchdown. But his night came down to a simple reality: “I just have to hold onto the ball.”

Wallace’s fumble came on the heels of his poor late-game decision that cost Ole Miss in its loss at LSU last week. And it will pile the criticism on the quarterback. “If those guys weren’t laying there, he would have been down and we would have got the first down,” Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. “Everything that had to happen for us to lose that game did happen.”

Auburn burst its way to the national title game last season with miraculous victories on improbable late plays against Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers somehow escaped with a harrowing road win Saturday despite 13 penalties that cost them 145 yards. Five of those were personal fouls, and they easily could have earned a sixth with Jones’ hit on Treadwell.

But Auburn escaped with a victory by overcoming a 10-point second-half deficit, and the teams traded leads three times in the final 17 minutes. It could well have been four times, but an Auburn team that re-invented improbable ways to win games last year found another. “Our guys find ways to win when its close,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Our guys truly believe they are going to win the game if it’s close.”

Sounds simple. But local favorite Faulkner couldn’t have penned a sadder tale for Mississippi. The revelry of The Grove on this sunny and brisk day gave way to a night of hope and promise. Instead, Ole Miss began the day ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and finished it in fourth place in the SEC West.

And as the sirens echoed through the silent night and the ambulance lights cut through the darkness, the reality of one of the wildest sequences in recent college football settled in as cold reality. 

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