OXFORD, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi’s quarterback had a hurt ankle and its two top receivers were out with leg injuries.
The offensive line was mostly a mess, with players constantly shifting spots because of injuries or ineffective play.
And despite all that, the Rebels managed to play their best game of the season.
The unlikely duo of Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins — along with coach Hugh Freeze’s deep dive into the playbook — pushed No. 18 Ole Miss to a convincing 31-17 victory over No. 4 Mississippi State on Saturday in the Egg Bowl.
“I was willing to throw everything we had at them,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “And we had some more if we needed it.”
The most surprising moment came when Wilkins, a freshman running back, took a pitch from Bo Wallace and then threw a perfect 31-yard touchdown pass to Cody Core that gave the Rebels a 31-17 lead with 9:14 remaining. It proved to be an insurmountable margin for Mississippi State.
It was just the second throw of Wilkins’ career.
Walton had a 91-yard touchdown run and had a career-high 148 yards rushing on 14 carries.
Wallace threw for 296 yards despite completing just 13 of 30 passes. He sprained his ankle in last week’s loss to Arkansas and wasn’t moving very well on Saturday. But he made enough plays to help the Rebels win the Egg Bowl for the second time in his three seasons as the starter.
“I knew this game would define my legacy,” Wallace said. “I had to win this game to be remembered like I want. … I hope they’ll remember as a guy who gave his all ever single game and won a lot of games.”
Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) led 7-3 at halftime before its offense got going in the second half and finished with 532 yards. It’s the 10th time in 11 seasons the home team has won the Egg Bowl.
“It wasn’t about us spoiling the year for them as much as reclaiming what we think is ours,” Freeze said. “(Mississippi State) had a good season in a great league.”
The loss by Mississippi State (10-2, 6-2, No. 4 CFP) means Alabama clinched the SEC Western Division. Dak Prescott threw for 282 yards and a touchdown.
It’s the first time both teams came into the Egg Bowl ranked since 1999.
The loss is a severe blow to Mississippi State’s hope of advancing to the inaugural College Football Playoff. De’Runnya Wilson caught eight passes for 117 yards and Fred Ross added six catches for 103 yards, but the Bulldogs were undone by an aggressive Ole Miss offense that wasn’t afraid to take chances.
“This is as tough as it gets,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “I do not care about the stakes. This game is for bragging right in the state. It is the most important game we play. So it is obviously a devastating loss.”
Mullen said there was “plenty of blame to go around” but saved the brunt of his criticism for the defense.
Walton finished with a career-high 148 yards rushing on just 14 carries. Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram caught five passes for 176 yards
Ole Miss had lost three straight conference games — including last week’s 30-0 setback at Arkansas — before breaking through with a convincing win.
“People thought we wouldn’t be up for this game, but it’s the Egg Bowl,” Walton said. “How can you not get up for the Egg Bowl?”
The Rebels came into the game giving up just 13.5 points per game, which ranked No. 1 in the country. Ole Miss lived up to the stats, using a swarming defense to contain Mississippi State’s running game.
But the Rebels’ offense took a while to get going.
One promising early drive ended when Wallace’s errant pass was intercepted in the end zone by Taveze Calhoun. But it was one of the few mistakes the senior made. His 1-yard run late in the first quarter helped the Rebels take a 7-3 lead into halftime.
The third quarter didn’t look anything like the first half, with the teams trading long pass completions to set up quick scoring opportunities. Wallace completed an 83-yard pass to Engram — which was the longest for the program since 2008 — to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Liggins that gave the Rebels a 14-10 lead.
But it was Walton’s 91-yard run that really gave the Rebels momentum. The play was designed for the 5-foot-8, 166-pounder to run right, but after a few steps he changed directions, shooting through the left side of the line before breaking a few arm tackles and streaking down the left sideline for the score and a 24-10 lead.
“I made one hard cut to see what I could get,” Walton said. “I remember one guy missed me and then there was nothing there.”