OXFORD – (AP) First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has a reputation as a gambler, unafraid to make an unconventional call with the game on the line.
He proved it on Saturday. The results were not what he – or the Rebels – had in mind.
Ole Miss blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, losing to Texas A&M 30-27 in a gut-wrenching ending at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Rebels have now lost 16 straight Southeastern Conference games dating back to 2010.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed,” Freeze said. “The kids are hurting. The coaches are hurting. It’s a game we easily could have won.”
Ole Miss had a 27-23 lead with just over three minutes remaining when Freeze decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1 in his own territory.
It turned out to be a disastrous call – Jeff Scott was stuffed at the Ole Miss 39. Texas A&M needed just four plays after the crucial stop for Johnny Manziel to find Ryan Swope for the game-winning score.
“We haven’t won an SEC game in however long it’s been, but I was just going for it,” Freeze said. “Everybody can sit back and second-guess, but I was giving our kids what I thought was the best chance to win the game. Obviously I wish I would have called something different now, but we would go for it again.”
Manziel accounted for 320 yards of total offense – 191 passing and 129 rushing. The Aggies (4-1, 2-1) won despite a season-high six turnovers, including four fumbles and two interceptions.
Shaking off more than three quarters of mistake-riddled football, Manziel rushed for a 29-yard touchdown and then threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Swope in the fourth quarter as Texas A&M rallied for the victory.
“A year ago this team couldn’t seem to close these games out,” first-year Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “But for us to go on the road in the SEC and to win is something we’ll take a lot of confidence from.”
Ole Miss (3-3, 0-2) made a final drive but Texas A&M’s Toney Hurd, Jr., intercepted a Bo Wallace pass and the Aggies were able to run out the clock.
Scott rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown. Wallace completed 20 of 34 passes for 305 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Ole Miss had a 27-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter and Texas A&M pinned on its own 1-yard line with less than eight minutes remaining.
But Manziel connected on a 32-yard, third-down pass to Mike Evans to give the Aggies some breathing room. Then in just two plays, Texas A&M drove the rest of the field for a quick touchdown. Ben Malena gashed the Rebels’ defense for 36 yards before Manziel rushed for a 29-yard score – dancing past several would-be tacklers – to make it 27-23
Manziel completed 17 of 26 passes. Evans caught eight passes for 105 yards.
Manziel – the 6-foot-1, 200-pound redshirt freshman with a penchant for highlight-reel plays – was coming off a breakout game against Arkansas that included 557 total yards and four touchdowns.
He looked much more mortal against the Rebels – at least for a while. There were a couple of huge plays, like his 38-yard scramble in the third quarter to push the Aggies deep into Ole Miss territory. But his risk-taking had a downside, too, like four plays later when he lost a fumble on the Ole Miss 21 to stop an almost certain scoring drive.
Manziel made another crucial mistake early in the fourth quarter, deftly avoiding the Ole Miss rush before making a bad pass over the middle that was intercepted by Cody Prewitt.
But if Manziel was frustrated, he didn’t show it. And then he led the Aggies to their second victory in their new conference.
“You have to believe and you have to keep playing. Period,” Sumlin said. “This game was proof of that.”
Texas A&M struck first on the opening drive after Malena burst through a huge hole and ran untouched 59 yards for a touchdown and 7-0 lead.
But the Ole Miss defense tightened considerably after that hiccup, while the offense improved as the first half progressed.
The Rebels took a 17-10 lead on a 14-yard run by Wallace – one play after he hit Randall Mackey on a 68-yard pass.
Then the Aggies fumbled on their own 35 – their third turnover of the half – and the Rebels had a chance to create some separation on the scoreboard.
But Ole Miss couldn’t take advantage. Wallace was hit as he threw and the ball fell right to Texas A&M linebacker Steven Jenkins, who ran for the easy 37-yard touchdown that tied the game at 17 going into halftime.
It was one of a handful of plays the Rebels would like to have back.
“I know they’re hurting and we all won’t sleep tonight,” Freeze said. “I know it’s disappointing. You pour your heart and soul into this. … You’ll stay up all night and think of everything that you could have done different to affect the outcome, but tomorrow we’ll come back and we’ll get past it and move on.”