Quarterbacks and receivers and running backs and cornerbacks and defensive ends. They may all talk about Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State. But don’t forget about the linemen. They know what it means as well.
Getting the Golden Egg back. Becoming bowl eligible. Helping the program continue to move forward.
“It’s a very exciting week for all those reasons,” said fourth-year junior offensive lineman Emmanuel McCray of Forest Hill High School in Jackson. “But we’re going to approach it like any other week and prepare our minds and bodies and just attack the game.”
It is indeed a new approach to this game, and actually has been every game all season. Unlike last year’s 2-10 team which had all but thrown in the towel well before Egg Bowl time, this year’s Rebels have played every down of every game and given it their best for 60 minutes. It’s what head coach Hugh Freeze asked of them when he got here.
McCray said the Rebels, 5-6 on the season, have responded to that all season. But there have been some times when things didn’t go their way at the end of some games. Like in the 41-35 loss at LSU last weekend. But they’ll bounce back again, according to McCray.
“Like we’ve been harping on all year, don’t let a team beat you twice,” he said. “Get yourselves up for the next week. You can’t dwell on tough losses. We’ve just got to pull out games at the end.
“That’s our focus this week – finishing strong.”
Certainly a win Saturday and it would be the Rebels' strongest finish since the 2008 team blew through November and finished with a 45-0 romp over MSU in Oxford. That was a year before McCray arrived at Ole Miss. He’s ready to help turn things around in the finale.
“Being from Mississippi and since I’ve been here I haven’t had a chance to beat them,” he said. “Anytime we can beat Mississippi State would be fun.”
McCray’s teammate, A.J. Hawkins, another man in the trenches, agreed. And he wants to win it for his teammates.
“Just playing for all the people I came in with, playing for my teammates, playing to go to a bowl game, and finishing on a good note,” Hawkins said of what Saturday night means to the team. “Play for that man standing next to you.”
Like McCray, Hawkins attributes much of the team’s resurgence to Freeze.
“Coach Freeze came in and taught us a lot about if you play for someone other than yourself, then you’ll have a good game,” said Hawkins, a senior from Lithonia, Ga. “I just look at it this week, this year, this game. We want to finish with a victory.”
McCray said this team understands this game and this rivalry because the coaching staff does.
“We’ve got a lot of coaches that played for the University,” he said. “So they have the same passion as some of the Mississippi guys (on the team) and other players, too. It’s a little more intense but still very calm. You don’t want to get too riled up for a game. You don’t want to be over emotional or anything like that.
“It’s big for our University. It being Coach Freeze's first year, it’s a big deal,” McCray continued. “It being an instate rival just adds fuel to the fire. (The Bulldogs’) mindset is to spoil us.”
Last weekend against LSU, the Rebel rushing attack looked a bit more like what fans had seen until the last few games. Against the Tigers, Ole Miss had 147 yards, which was slightly more than LSU had on the ground. Overall offensively, the Rebels gained 463 yards.
“We were just clicking,” McCray said. “In the other games where the running game was kind of struggling, we knew our mistakes. We knew what was going wrong. We just stuck to the fundamentals and played hard (at LSU).
“And execution,” he continued. “That’s been the big deal most all season. Just execute. Just finish our blocks.”
Hawkins said they also had a little different offensive approach in Tiger Stadium.
“We made adjustments to make the defensive line have to chase the ball rather than running right at them, which is their strength,” he said. “We made them run side to side, mixing up different blocking combinations, and just basically making them run and finding cutback lanes.”
They know MSU comes in a solid team, and they’ll have to find ways to also offset some of the positives the Bulldogs bring.
“We’ve looked at them,” Hawkins said of State. “They have a lot of big, strong guys up front. I know they’ll be a tough assignment.”
But through it all, the Rebels said this Ole Miss team is more prepared in every way for the challenge ahead, and it has been all season.
"This is a totally different team,” McCray said. “You cannot even compare our mindset (from last season). It’s totally different.”
“I feel like it’s through the roof right now, given that LSU was ranked and we should have beat them,” Hawkins said of the team’s confidence level. “But from last year, we’ve made a giant step. We’re just playing and getting better week by week.”