Ole Miss rolls after Bulldogs lose QB
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- In the blink of an eye, Nick Fitzgerald’s life changed on Thursday night.
Mississippi State’s star dual-threat quarterback cut up the field for a 3-yard run before two Ole Miss defenders tackled him to the ground. When they got up, he stayed down in pain.
Fitzgerald sustained a gruesome dislocated ankle that resulted in him being carted off the field and replaced by true freshman Keytaon Thompson. The Rebels took full advantage of the change, and they forced five turnovers that proved to be the difference in their 31-28 upset of No. 14 Mississippi State.
“I am so happy for our players and our fans,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “This means so much to them. It hasn’t always been easy for them.”
Big plays also paid off for the Ole Miss offense. Jordan Ta‘amu threw for 247 yards, with 140 of those yards coming off of his two touchdown passes. A.J. Brown burned the Bulldogs for 167 yards and a touchdown on six catches, and Jordan Wilkins rushed for 110 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
“We worked hard all year,” Wilkins said. “The record wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but we kept fighting as a team, trying to overcome all of the adversity that we faced, and there’s no better feeling than finishing off like this.”
Linebacker DeMarquis Gates made a game-high 13 tackles for the Rebels, who had nine tackles for a loss and three sacks.
The Rebels (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) scored in the first 39 seconds when Ta‘amu found Brown for a 58-yard pass inside Mississippi State territory and Wilkins ran for a 22-yard touchdown on the next play.
Later in the first quarter, the Bulldogs were dealt a blow that they would never recover from when Fitzgerald sustained the injury that ended his night. He gave way to Thompson, who helped Mississippi State close the deficit to 10-6 by halftime.
Turnovers would plague the Bulldogs all game. They threw two interceptions and fumbled three times, one by Thompson proving critical.
After the quarterback coughed it up inside the Ole Miss 25, Ta‘amu struck with an 80-yard touchdown pass for the 17-6 lead midway through the third quarter. The Rebels added on late in the third quarter when Ta‘amu hit D.K. Metcalf for the 63-yard score, and Ole Miss took a 24-6 lead into the fourth.
The Bulldogs finally got in the end zone after a Rebels turnover. Mark McLaurin intercepted a pass that eventually led to 15-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Deddrick Thomas to close the deficit to 24-13 with 9:16 remaining.
Ole Miss answered with a 46-yard burst up the middle from Wilkins for a 31-13 advantage.
Mississippi State gave itself a chance late with Kylin Hill’s 30-yard run and a two-point conversion, cutting the lead to 31-21. A defensive stop gave the Bulldogs another shot, and Thompson led the team down the field and scored from 1 yard out to close it to 31-28.
The ensuing onside kick attempt failed, and Ole Miss held on for the win.
“Our guys battled,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “They continued to battle for four quarters. Things didn’t go our way through much of a game, but we continued to battle, continued to fight, continued to compete for four quarters.”
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) rushed for 294 yards in the game, led by Thompson, who had 26 carries and 121 yards with a score. Hill rushed for 82 yards, and Aeris Williams gained 75 yards.
Thompson was also 13 of 27 for 195 yards with an interception and a touchdown.
“I learned a lot throughout the game,” Thompson said. “I felt like I got better as the game went on. I just learned from my mistakes and learned what you can and can’t do and the certain shots you take.”
Ole Miss is self-imposing a postseason bowl ban due to a recent NCAA investigation, so Saturday night ended the season for the Rebels. Mississippi State will await its bowl destination in two weeks.
NOTES: Ole Miss WR A.J. Brown broke the school’s single-season record for receiving yards with 1,252 yards. ... Mississippi State RB Aeris Williams eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season. .. Ole Miss RB Jordan Wilkins also went over the 1,000-yard mark with his sixth 100-yard game. ... The road team has now won the last three Egg Bowls. ... The Rebels lead the series 64-44-6.