He slapped hands with fans in the seats that were leaning over the railing in excitement as he exited Kyle Field. Shea Patterson had just silenced 104,000 people while writing an improbable opening chapter in his young career that ended in a 29-28 Ole Miss victory over eighth-ranked Texas A&M
Patterson rejuvenated an Ole Miss team that desperately needed something to go its way. His 25-42 performance for 328 yards and two touchdowns served as a spark that lit a fire under a team that has endured a trying month and a half. The losses piled up as did the injuries. Even in the wins, the hits kept coming. The team lost quarterback Chad Kelly last week to an ACL injury and the ship seemed to have sunk. But no one told Patterson that.
“This one was for the seniors. It wasn’t about the redshirt, me pulling it off,” Patterson said in the moments after the game. “It was about the team. This game was for the seniors, and I’m happy I did it for them.”
The first half looked like a product of what it really was: A freshman quarterback running for his life behind a battered offensive line. Ole Miss moved the ball well in the middle of the field but struggled to produce points, mustering just two field goals and trailing the Aggies 21-6 at the half.
But Patterson stayed the course through scoreless third quarter that made a comeback seem even more improbable.
A few seconds into the game’s final quarter, Patterson made something from nothing, reversing field and turning back to his left he found Damore’ea Stringfellow for his first career touchdown. The score was now 21-13 with nearly a full 15 minutes left to play.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s crazy, my first start,” Patterson said. “Johnny Manziel was my favorite player growing up. It’s ironic that I get my first start at Kyle Field. It’s awesome.”
Ole Miss followed that up with a three-play , 61-yard scoring drive just two minutes later. The score was 21-19 in favor of Texas A&M after a failed two point attempt.
The Aggies meticulously responded with a touchdown of their own, eating over five minutes of clock and nearly putting the game on ice as it was now 28-19 Texas A&M with just six minutes to play.
Patterson had gotten comfortable, however. He and the offense marched 75 yards on six plays in less than two minutes that culminated with Patterson placing a 32-yard deep ball into the hands of Van Jefferson in the left corner of the end zone. It was a throw that flashed the potential from the number one quarterback in the country coming out of high school, and helped justify Freeze’s decision to pull his redshirt just two days prior.
It also pulled the Rebels within two at 28-26, and kept Ole Miss alive in a fourth quarter that saw the Rebels score 23 points, with the final three coming from the right foot of kicker Gary Wunderlich with six seconds left on the clock. It gave the Rebels their first SEC win since September and a much-needed breath of life.
“A lot teams go through adversity in given years and we’ve certainly had our share,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said. “Whether it be difficult losses a turnover here, turnover there or the many injuries that we’ve gone through. We’ve just had a lot of things that have put a cloud around us and it’s been tough to break through it.”
Players celebrated on the field after the game. The mood was drastically different than it had been for the last six weeks – even in its win a week ago that saw Kelly go down.
“Man, I’ve never seen our kids waver. It’s been a next man up mentality,” Freeze said. “The coaches have never wavered. We’ve had belief in the next opportunity. Tonight obviously, we get to see the fruits of it. Our kids haven’t grown weary in doing good or working. They certainly believed in themselves enough tonight in a difficult atmosphere to play for 60 minutes.”
A defense that has struggled mightily this year, and continued to in the first half by giving up large chunks of yardage, buckled down in the final thirty minutes. The unit allowed just seven points. It got stops when Ole Miss needed it most, including one with three minutes left to go in the game, giving Patterson and the offense one last chance.
“I was furious at half with some things we did not do defensively,” Freeze said. “I wasn’t blaming the kids. I just thought we didn’t put them in enough positions to be successful. The kids assured me. D.J. Jones and Fadol (Brown) said, ‘Coach, we will play for 60 minutes, you just help us get the calls right,’ and (defensive coordinator) Dave (Wommack) and them did a great job in the second half.”
Freeze said the theme this week for his team was time. How would they use their time? Ole Miss needed every second in a final quarter that saw them erase a 15-point deficit. An offensive line that has been decimated by injuries gave Patterson more time to throw in the second half.
Time also changed. A new era began at quarterback, and started in style. Ole Miss got a peek into the future. At a glance, the immediate one that is approaching looks brighter than it did when it watched Kelly limp off of the field for the final time a week ago.
The Rebels now sit at 5-5. They are one win away from buying more time in two weeks of extra practice in bowl preparation.
Freeze was faced with one of the most difficult decisions that he’s had in his time at Ole Miss. Burn a redshirt that you spent the first ten weeks of the season trying to keep on? Or pull it to see what the future looks like?
He knew his team needed a spark. He knew his senior class that has changed the culture of the program deserved the best chance to go out on a positive note. Freeze kept it quiet all week, and in the end made a difficult but correct call. It produced some life. It produced confidence, and more so than anything–it produced a win– something that can ease the pain that adversity brings quicker than anything else.