STARKVILLE – It all started with senior linebacker and captain CJ Johnson.
The Ole Miss football team arrived at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville around 4:15 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Johnson was the first player off the bus and carried the Golden Egg trophy over his head into the stadium.
When the clock hit zero and the scoreboard read Ole Miss 38 and Mississippi State 27, Johnson was once again the first player to carry the trophy.
“It”s because I love the University of Mississippi,” Johnson said. “The Golden Egg trophy belongs in Oxford where it should always be.”
Led by another dominant, turnover-free performance from junior quarterback Chad Kelly and a swarming Ole Miss defense, the Rebels won in Starkville for the first time since 2003, which was Eli Manning”s senior year. It”s also only the second time the road team has won the Egg Bowl in the last 12 years.
Ole Miss finished the 2015 regular season 9-3 overall and 6-2 in SEC play, which marks them second in the SEC West only behind Alabama, a team which they beat back in September.
“I”m very pleased that we”re taking the egg back to Oxford,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “It means so much to our people and our program. I”m just thrilled, excited.”
Earlier in the week, Chad Kelly talked about how he was a city kid from Buffalo, New York and that he had never heard the ring of Mississippi State”s trademark cowbells before. At Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night, he was surrounded by thousands of them, and wasn”t phased at all.
For the third game in a row, Kelly did not have a turnover, and finished the game 21 of 30 passing for 236 yards and two touchdowns and adding 74 rushing yards and another touchdown to add on.
“It”s huge to get a win in this game,” Kelly said. “It means everything to the University, to our players and I”m just excited to be a part of this great team.”
With his two passing touchdowns Saturday, Kelly tied the school record for passing touchdowns in a season with 31, which Manning set in 2001.
Improving the running game this week was a big goal in preparing for Mississippi State and it showed for the Rebel offense. The ground game totaled 243 yards led by senior running back Jaylen Walton, who finished with 16 carries for 93 yards. Sophomore running back Jordan Wilkins also had five significant carries for 54 yards and one touchdown.
With wide receiver Laquon Treadwell being covered most of the game, sophomore wide receiver Damore”ea Stringfellow had his best game as a Rebel, reeling in five catches for 83 yards and two scores.
“If one guy gets covered, the next man has to step up,” Stringfellow said. “My opportunities came and I made the most of them. That”s it.”
There was no early letdown for the Rebels as they quieted the home crowd and took the early 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, which proved to be too much for the Bulldogs to handle.
“I loved the way we started and I liked our match ups that we had across the board on both sides of the ball,” Freeze said. “That definitely helped us build our lead.”
The biggest emphasis on defense was stopping Mississippi State senior quarterback Dak Prescott. On his senior night, Prescott would”ve liked nothing more to go out on top with a win over their rival. The Rebel defense held Prescott to 254 yards passing with two touchdowns and was sacked seven times by the Rebel defense and looked rattled in the pocket.
With three minutes left in the first quarter, junior defensive back Tony Bridges stepped in front of a Prescott pass, intercepted it, and ran 45 yards untouched to make it 21-0 Ole Miss.
“We got after him (Prescott) early,” Freeze said. “He was uncomfortable in the pocket early and that was our plan going in. I thought we executed that plan really well.”
“You had to go in there and stop him. He”s their guy,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “He”s a great football player and he forces you to spread all over the place. It”s tough game planning against a player like him.”
Just five minutes before the game began, the Rebels learned that they would not have the chance to play for the SEC Championship, as Alabama defeated Auburn 29-13 in the Iron Bowl.
The Rebels have overcome many obstacles this season, but it shows the resiliency of this team knowing their conference title hopes are dashed before and coming out with the intensity and passion needed to win a rivalry game.
“It showed us where the focus of this team was and task at hand,” Johnson said.
After the game, Freeze mentioned that his team is a fourth-and-25 play away from going to Atlanta for the SEC championship, referring to the overtime loss to Arkansas. The what-ifs were thrown in the trash and his team kept fighting, winning their third Egg Bowl in four years under Freeze.
“I understand the importance of this game,” Freeze said. “I don”t always run from it. I realize I”ll be judged on upon it. It”s always a huge, huge game and it sure makes Christmas much, much sweeter.”