OXFORD, Miss – Mississippi State receiver Austin Williams was just about to tie up the game against instate rival Ole Miss. It was the first quarter of Saturday's showdown between the Bulldogs and Rebels in the Battle for the Golden Egg. Ole Miss was up 7-0 and the Bulldogs were about to answer. Then they weren't.
Williams caught a pass from freshman quarterback Will Rogers. Right at the goal line, the football was knocked loose by Tylan Knight of the Rebels. Ole Miss' Deane Leonard picked the ball up and returned it 84 yards, all the way to the MSU 16-yard line.
Five plays later Ole Miss was in the end zone. In all, it was a 14-point swing. Instead of MSU tying the game up 7-all, the Bulldogs were down 14-0. State would fight, scratch and claw, but never could fully recover before falling 31-24 to the Rebels.
"I thought we finished the game, we just didn't win the game," MSU head coach Mike Leach said.
Indeed, the Bulldogs kept things interesting all throughout Saturday evening's affair. Multiple times, Ole Miss had opportunities to pull away, but State seemingly always had an answer or a timely defensive stop to keep hope alive.
Ultimately, the game wasn't decided until the contest's final play. The Bulldogs were on the Ole Miss 36-yard line and ran one last play as time expired. Rogers' heave to the end zone fell incomplete. With that, the Rebels ran to get the Golden Egg Trophy for the first time since 2017.
It was a well-earned victory for Ole Miss, fueled by 385 yards of passing and two scoring tosses by Rebel quarterback Matt Corral. Running back Jerrion Ealy rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown. In all, Ole Miss racked up 550 yards of offense.
Meanwhile, even in defeat, State had several impressive showings as well. In the immediate aftermath of the game, that provided little in the way of comfort for the Bulldogs.
"No moral victories," Mississippi State linebacker Erroll Thompson insisted.
For anyone looking for signs brighter days could be ahead for MSU though, Saturday was a second-straight week of hope in that regard. Seven days after going toe to toe with Georgia and seeing its offense put forth its best offensive showing in a month and a half, State again showed flashes of promise in Oxford.
First, there was Rogers. The youngster completed 45 of his 61 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns.
"I thought Will did a good job extending plays with his feet," Leach said. "He got in positions to make plays. I think Will's pocket awareness is definitely improving and that helps out the (offensive) line and the (offensive) line is improving and that helps him out."
Then there was freshman receiver Jaden Walley. He was Rogers' favorite target, catching nine passes for 176 yards – an MSU single-game freshman record. It's just the latest impressive outing from Walley. He also had 115 yards receiving last week at Georgia.
"I think it all goes back to practice and my preparation for the games," Walley said.
"He's a young guy, but he plays like an old guy," MSU linebacker Aaron Brule said of Walley. "He's like a little veteran out there. He really wants it."
Still, Rogers and Walley weren't enough. The Bulldogs were hampered by third-down struggles, going 3-for-14 on conversion attempts. And while State's defense performed well in spots to keep Ole Miss off the scoreboard, the Bulldogs did fall victim to several big plays. The Rebels had seven passing plays of more than 15 yards and six running plays of 10 yards or more.
Five passes for Corral went for more than 30 yards, including his two touchdown passes – a 48-yarder and an 81-yarder.
Those passes took advantage of a State defense that was again shorthanded. MSU played its second-straight game with less than 50 scholarship athletes available due to multiple reasons including injuries, transfers and COVID-19 protocols.
"It's just been a next-man-up mentality," Thompson said of the low numbers. "We have to fight and claw, no matter what the circumstances are."
Fight and claw the Bulldogs did, but on this night, the Rebels were simply a bit better. Will that be the case in future years? Only time will tell. But on a night the Bulldogs lost the Golden Egg, they did for the second week in a row gain a semblance of hope that brighter days are ahead. Perhaps even a few more golden ones. That's at least a better spot for the Bulldogs than they were in over the course of October and early November.
"I think it's definitely (getting better)," Leach said. "You've got young guys playing extremely hard and they're improving. It's not as fast as I'd like or they'd like or everybody else would like. But we're improving and (Saturday) was one of the grittier games I've been involved in."
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