STARKVILLE — Jo’quavious Marks lifted his fists to his chest in contrition.
Lideatrick Griffin covered his face mask with his hands.
And Nolan McCord just hung his head.
Each Mississippi State player had made a key mistake for the Bulldogs in rapid succession late in the second quarter Thursday against No. 9 Ole Miss. Marks dropped back-to-back passes from Will Rogers on which he surely would have scored. On third down, Griffin dropped an almost certain touchdown toss on a leap into the end zone. Then McCord hooked a 33-yard field goal wide right, his second miss of the game.
Mississippi State could have weathered one of those errors.
The Bulldogs couldn’t make up for all three.
The fruitless drive, emblematic of MSU’s struggles throughout the night, cost the Bulldogs (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) their best shot at upsetting the Rebels (10-2, 6-2 SEC) in a 31-21 loss Thursday night at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State didn’t score again until midway through the fourth quarter.
“What we did a good job of today was putting ourselves in a good position to score,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. “What we didn’t do a very good job of was finishing the deal.”
Instead, Ole Miss padded its 10-6 halftime lead with a third-quarter touchdown by Snoop Conner and a fourth-quarter score by Matt Corral. Conner finished with two rushing scores, while Corral added a 15-yard passing touchdown to Jerrion Ealy.
Rogers found Jaden Walley for an 11-yard touchdown for Mississippi State with 7:20 to go, and Marks ran for an 11-yard score with 2:27 left.
But Ole Miss recovered an onside kick from the Bulldogs for the second straight time, and the Rebels ran more than a minute off the clock before turning the ball over on downs. Rogers rushed to the 3-yard line on an untimed down, tackled hard by Jake Springer to close out the game.
The 14-yard run capped an uneven night for the sophomore quarterback after back-to-back great performances at Auburn and against Tennessee State. Rogers finished 38 of 58 passing for 336 yards.
“It wasn’t his best game, because I’ve seen him more accurate and I’ve seen him trigger it a little quicker,” Leach said. “But I thought he hung in there in a tough, tough situation. I thought he really did a great job as far as holding the offense together as far as continuing to move the ball.”
But the sophomore missed out on a big chance late in the first quarter. Rogers barely overthrew a wide-open Makai Polk in the end zone on first-and-goal from the Ole Miss 7-yard line, and the Bulldogs settled for a 29-yard McCord field goal.
It was the second time Mississippi State ended up with three points instead of seven. After Ole Miss turned the ball over on downs at the 33-yard line on its opening drive, the Bulldogs’ series was derailed by a false start before McCord made a 34-yard field goal.
The redshirt freshman proceeded to misfire on a 40-yard kick in the second quarter before driving his fourth attempt of the first half to the right of the uprights. McCord did not attempt a field goal in the second half.
Leach acknowledged McCord’s struggles are likely mental as well as physical.
“If you’re not right mentally, your form’s not going to be very good,” Leach said. “If your form’s good, then the ball doesn’t have any choice but to go through.”
But instead of a 10-9 game at halftime — if not a 12-10 lead had McCord made all four kicks — the Bulldogs trailed by four points, and the deficit only got larger.
Mississippi State picked up just one first down on its opening drive of the third quarter, and Ole Miss went 82 yards in seven plays to stretch out its lead.
Conner capped the drive with a 1-yard score, his second of the day after ending a 15-play Rebels drive in the second quarter with Ole Miss’ first touchdown.
After his second score, Mississippi State failed to score on its next two drives before Corral punched in a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Rebels up three scores with 11:17 to go.
The Bulldogs managed two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but it was too little, too late. Their missed opportunities in the first half proved too costly.
“We’ve said it multiple times this year, but at the end of the day, we have to finish drives in the end zone,” Rogers said.
Instead of three straight victories to close the regular season with eight wins, the Bulldogs closed the 2021 regular season on a sour note.
While they await their bowl game assignment, they’ll have to forget the pain of seeing the Rebels celebrating, lifting the gleaming gold trophy amid the cold, damp night.
“This is going to sting for 365 days, but ultimately, you just have to flush it,” Rogers said. “When we find out what bowl game we’re going to, all our focus needs to be on that bowl game.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.