Ole Miss, now 5-6 on the season and 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference, lost 41-35 to the Tigers. The Saturday before they’d lost to Vanderbilt 27-26 late but came back strong against the Tigers. Earlier they defeated Auburn 41-20 the week after Texas A&M scored 13 points in the final seven minutes to win 30-27.
So there’s all that, and then it’s The Battle of the Golden Egg this Saturday. That might be all that needs to be said, no matter what happened last week or this season.
Freeze, native north Mississippian which is where both these institutions are located, knows this game. There’s no learning curve for him as there has been with some past coaches.
“I actually have family members that are on the other side,” he said, as do most Ole Miss people in Mississippi – and vice versa. “And I have great respect for some coaches down there also. I won’t get into the name-calling. We have great respect for them. We want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us. I understand the impact it has on our program and their program and our fans and the people of this state. But we’re going to go about it the right way in trying to beat them on Saturday.”
Mississippi State, 8-3 this season and 4-3 in SEC play, trails in the all-time series 60-42-6. But the Bulldogs have won the past three games, and a win streak that long for MSU in this series hadn’t happened since before the United States entered World War II.
Freeze said he’s looking forward to his first Egg Bowl as head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels.
“I’m very excited. I can’t wait for Saturday,” he said. “I try not to be anxious. I don’t think that’s a good emotion to have for an entire week. But it’s very difficult to fight it. You just want to get the preparation done and give your kids a solid plan that gives them a chance to compete with a very talented football team. That’s what occupies my mind to keep me from being overly anxious.”
But there’s more riding on this game than just an Egg Bowl outcome. Ole Miss has been trying for three games to become bowl eligible with its sixth win. From 5-3 after the Arkansas game to 5-6, they need this one to move on to the postseason.
“I sure would like to send these seniors out going to play in a postseason game and our fans getting to experience that,” Freeze said. “They're a team that deserves to do that in my eyes. I’m biased as can be. They’ve been through their share of hardship. Certainly with a break here or there this year, they could easily be in a very good bowl game.
“So I’ll try to keep my emotions in check. There are people in my life that remind me daily about the journey. But there's no hiding that I'm very excited about this game.”
The Bulldogs come to Oxford, where they’ve won only 11 times in 35 tries, after bouncing back last week with a 45-14 win against Arkansas in Starkville. Prior to that, MSU had lost three straight games against Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU after a 7-0 start to the season.
Freeze said the injury situation is what it is for his team and he hopes it’s improving.
“There’s no one that’s definitely out that traveled last week,” he said. “We hope to get Wesley (Pendleton) back, and that will give us some added depth in the secondary. We’re hopeful on Charles (Sawyer) and Jamal (Mosley) that they’ll be able to go. C.J. (Johnson) I think will be fine. Not playing him the other night gave him an added couple of days in the recovery process. He felt good this morning, so I think C.J. will be fine.”
Bo Wallace continues to be hindered by a shoulder situation that he’s dealt with since a hit on the turf in the Superdome Sept. 22 against Tulane, a 39-0 Ole Miss win.
“About the same as the last three Sundays,” Freeze said of Wallace. “Definitely not 100 percent. You could tell that Saturday. He's proven to be very resilient and he's a tough kid. He'll get ready as best he can to go Saturday. He's never gotten totally well from (the hit at Tulane). Probably got better but took another hit in some game. But it never got totally well from (the Tulane) game.”
Freeze said that with no classes this week, the players have an opportunity to focus on football and prepare more for MSU.
“Most of that depends on the kid. Hopefully he’s wise with the time he has. We’re not going to grind them with a lot of extra practice and reps. We’ll continue to prepare as we have every week. There is a lot of time they can spend in the treatment room and they will have a lot of time to rest if they use it properly. Hopefully we’re maturing to where we’re wise, and certainly it can be beneficial to us.”
Freeze said he and his coaches hadn’t mentioned MSU to the team until Sunday. They focused on one game at a time, and the time to focus on Mississippi State is now.
“As far as addressing it with our team, (the first time) was (Sunday) after the LSU game,” he said. “I've had to address it with media and fans. But as far as the team, yesterday. Now we'll talk about it a lot this week.
“I’m extremely proud of our kids and our coaches and the way they bounced back from those," he added of those difficult losses this season.”
Now they get a chance to do it again as the Bulldogs arrive for the regular season finale.
Egg Bowl Week Notes:
On running the ball against LSU: Matt (Luke) and (the staff) had a good plan. We think we have one every week. The coaches on the other side are always game-planning against us, too. We popped a big one early and that gives you confidence. We didn't run it extremely well in the second half. They’re very talented and play a lot of kids on defense. We kind of wore down. That's a common thread the last few games, that we’re not quite the same in the fourth quarter, particularly defensively. We’re playing kids 70-80 snaps instead of 40-50, and they’re playing special teams, at least a good part of them are. We played well enough to be two-dimensional against LSU, and that’s what you have to do.”
On the MSU team: They have a very physical offensive line. They're as balanced as any team we've played and that makes them tough to defend. That’s the first thing that jumps out at me. His kids play with great emotion and passion and play hard. We'll have to execute. Defensively their secondary is a definite strength of their team. They have upperclassmen there. Their quarterback will stand in there and take a hit. He makes all the throws. He understands the timing of throws and where his receivers are going to be. They don't turn the ball over and don’t have a lot of negative plays. He will stand in there and do his job; he’s a tough kid. You look at teams with good team speed, play hard, have a good quarterback, a solid defense and can run the football, it’s a tough team to defend.
On special teams play: Couple things. Our kickoff coverage team has been excellent. Our punt coverage team has been up and down. They were good the other night except for that one. That was a weird deal (on the punt return for a touchdown at LSU). It might have been our best punt of the year. They were in an all-out rush and didn't even have a return on. They had a very athletic kid. We probably were resting too many of our starting players on that team. Looking back, we wish we'd have kicked it away from him. He made a great run. We had three shots to get him on the ground and missed all three of them. We'll look closely at that this week, I assure you.
On Channing Ward: He had his best game of the year, and with C.J. (Johnson) out, that gave him more opportunities to play. He had one blown assignment that hurt us, but other than that I thought he played really well. He matched up with their scheme better than some. Our package was not as drastic or as big. When a kid feels good about what he’s doing, he can play faster. (His play) was a combination of his maturing and what we were asking him to do that night.
On what he will tell his team about the rivalry this week: We'll relive some of the great games with them. Our video staff does a great job. We'll talk about not only now but 20 years from now. Those memories of winning these games mean something 20 years from now. We'll talk about from our heart what it means to be from this state and what this game means. We'll stress every single day this week the importance of this game.