In this strange year that is 2020, we all had to look on a bit stunned late last Saturday afternoon: An Egg Bowl broke out in Oxford and a fight didn’t.
No excessive jawing and finger wagging. No embarrassing celebrations.
Hallelujah! It can be done.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a physical, jaw-rattling football game that Ole Miss hung on to win over Mississippi State, 31-24. Both teams played hard, determined and with class.
Congrats go to the players and their new coaches, State’s Mike Leach and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin.
Especially, especially this year.
The players have to be exhausted, perhaps mentally more than physically. On top of the usual academic duties, practice sessions and conditioning work, the players have had to handle so much when it comes to the Covid rules and restrictions. We’re all dealing with it, but college football players are doing so on a much larger scale.
On top of that, they’re always wondering: Are we really going to get to play this week? Games continue to be postponed, some just hours before kickoff. Schedules are still being adjusted.
State and Ole Miss are supposed to play two more games. We can only hope that happens, but it won’t be this weekend. Ole Miss, 4-4 and in bowl conversations, has road games with Texas A&M and LSU still to play. State, 2-6, has home games against Missouri and Auburn to make up.
It seems certain there will be other league games played on the same day (Dec. 19) of the SEC championship showdown — unheard of pre-Covid.
So as we wait to hear if, when, where and who State and Ole Miss play next, I offer a few takeaways from the Egg Bowl and the season so far:
***It says something that the decisive touchdown came on an 8-yard run by Jerrion Ealy — with a scrum-like push from the offensive line.
Yes, the Rebels can throw it. (More about that in a minute). But has anyone checked the SEC stats? Ole Miss leads the league in rushing, and Ealy ranks fourth with 701 yards. The sophomore out of Jackson Prep averages 5 yards a carry and has scored 9 touchdowns.
The offensive line hasn’t received the credit it deserves — junior Ben Brown at center; freshmen Caleb Warren and Jeremy James at guard; sophomore Nick Broeker and senior Royce Newman at tackle.
They’re young for the most part, but they have developed a nasty streak about them. They play with confidence and an edge that is fun to watch.
***State freshman quarterback Will Rogers may have a baby face, but he sure plays like a man. In just his third start, Rogers was cool and calm in the Egg Bowl and had his team in it down to the final play.
I have learned not to look too far ahead when it comes to college football. So many things can change so quickly. But if Rogers was stock, I’d be buying. There is an “it” factor about him. You can tell his teammates respect him, simply by the number of pats on the shoulder he gets every time he returns to the sideline.
He threw 61 times — yep, 61 times — in the Egg Bowl for 440 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions. He’s thrown for 1,312 yards and completed 74 percent of his passes overall.
And here is the really weird part: He has zero running game, the so-called “quarterback’s best friend.” In eight games, State has rushed a league-least 130 times and averaged 24 yards per game on the ground. The next fewest attempts belong to LSU at 245.
No rushing game puts a ton of pressure on a quarterback and offensive line every game, every series. Can Leach’s philosophy work in the SEC? Only time will tell.
***Raise your hand if you expected Matt Corral to be Ole Miss’ starting quarterback and leading the top-ranked offense in the SEC this season.
Nope, not me. I never saw this coming. But then again, maybe I forgot that Corral was a 4-star prospect out of high school in Ventura, California. And maybe I didn’t realize just how little coaching he received the previous two seasons in Oxford under two different quarterback coaches.
To be fair, Corral admits he has put in more preparation time than he did before. But, perhaps, that’s part of coaching, too.
The Kiffin factor glows brightest when looking at Corral’s numbers: 186 of 255 passing (73 percent) for 2,744 yards, 24 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Six of the picks came in one game (Arkansas). He’s been SEC Offensive Player of the Week three times.
He throws a deadly deep ball. Even if you saw it, go back and watch the 81-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Sanders in the Egg Bowl — 65 yards in the air and perfectly placed.
And Corral’s game — especially looking off safeties and not forcing throws into coverage — seems to improve weekly.
He’s a different cat, marching to a California groove. But he and Kiffin seem to be a perfect match.
***One of the best catches of 2020 was made by State wideout Jaden Walley for 28 yards with 10:30 left in the game.. One-handed while getting lit up by Rebel safety Jalen Jordan. It led to a Rogers TD pass to Austin Williams to cut Ole Miss’ lead to 24-21 with 7:51 left. It’s worth another look or 12.
A freshman out of D’Iverville, Walley is the first freshman MSU receiver to post back-to-back 100-yard games. And he must know more than football. Air Force offered him out of high school.
***And you thought I’d forgotten about Elijah Moore?
Hardly. This time last year, he was being criticized nationally for his dog-peeing celebration after a touchdown in the final seconds of the Egg Bowl in Starkville.
Moore has more than redeemed himself in 2020. He says the fallout from the antic taught him a lot about life.
He has quietly gone about his business and leads the nation in receiving — 86 catches for 1,193 yards and 8 touchdowns.
***A stat that may only interest me: Ole Miss senior receiver Dontario Drummond has caught 17 passes this season — 7 for touchdowns.