OXFORD — As the cigar smoke swirled from the nearby locker room, Will Rogers shuffled to the left of the lectern, making the four words in maroon block letters on his gray T-shirt visible.
“This is our state.”
Rogers and the Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) didn’t make it easy in a 24-22 win over No. 20 Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4 SEC) on Thursday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but the Bulldogs got it done regardless to snap a two-game Ole Miss win streak in the in-state rivalry contest and reclaim the Golden Egg Trophy.
“It just felt great to hold it in my hands,” linebacker Nathaniel Watson said.
One yard away from practically icing the 119th annual Egg Bowl, Rogers coughed up the football on a keeper, and Ole Miss drove 99 yards for a touchdown with 1:25 to play.
But defensive tackle Randy Charlton knocked away a shovel pass on the Rebels’ tying two-point conversion try, and MSU ran out the clock from there.
As hard as they made it Thursday night, the Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) still closed the book on the regular season with a victory.
“This game had a season’s worth of excitement in it — positive and negative,” Bulldogs coach Mike Leach said.
After trailing 16-7 late in the second quarter, the Bulldogs scored just before the halftime break and kicked the go-ahead field goal early in the fourth. They added another touchdown to lead by eight points and were on the verge of making it a two-touchdown game.
But another sloppy sequence gave Ole Miss one last chance.
Rogers fumbled on a play from the Rebels’ 1-yard line, handing Ole Miss the ball with 4:48 to go and the entire field to drive.
The Rebels finally broke a staid MSU defense, converting two fourth downs before Jaxson Dart found Dayton Wade on a 23-yard touchdown pass, giving Ole Miss a chance to tie the game.
But Charlton deflected Dart’s shovel pass to Jonathan Mingo, and MSU recovered an onside kick to seal the victory.
“About the time you thought it couldn’t get crazier, it did,” Leach said.
Mississippi State took the lead for good on a 13-play, 78-yard drive that started at their own 6-yard line. Massimo Biscardi made a 34-yard field goal to put MSU ahead, 17-16.
The Bulldogs added to their lead as Rogers hit a wide-open Rara Thomas for a 22-yard touchdown pass with 7:58 to play.
MSU and Ole Miss traded touchdowns and field goals, respectively, in the first half. Rebels kicker Jonathan Cruz made three field goals, and defensive tackle JJ Pegues caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Jaxson Dart on fourth-and-goal.
Jo’quavious Marks put the Bulldogs up 7-3 with a 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and Lideatrick Griffin caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Rogers with eight seconds left in the first half.
The score was critical in setting the stage for an improved MSU performance after the break.
“I think that was our biggest drive probably since I’ve been here,” Rogers said.
The Bulldogs’ next three possessions were ugly. Rogers ran out of bounds on a fourth-down run for a turnover on downs, Mississippi State then went three and out, and Rogers was strip-sacked from behind, giving Ole Miss the ball back at the Bulldogs’ 36.
But State safety Jalen Green broke up a fourth-down toss by Dart at the MSU 6-yard line, setting the stage for MSU’s go-ahead field goal.
Thomas’ touchdown catch made it an eight-point game, and MSU seemed poised to put the contest away after a toss from Dart was ruled a backward pass on review.
The throw was originally ruled incomplete, and the down was promptly nullified because of an inadvertent whistle. But the review handed the Bulldogs — who jumped on the football — possession well into Rebels territory.
Dillon Johnson set MSU up at the 1-yard line, but Rogers fumbled the pitch and Ole Miss recovered.
The Rebels took their time to march down the field, scoring on the 15th play of their drive to set up a chance to tie the game at 24-all.
But they called two timeouts before the failed two-point try, giving themselves little chance to get the ball back.
The Rebels lost four of their final five games after peaking at a top-10 ranking, while the Bulldogs rallied to win three of their last four after two losses followed a 5-1 start.
“It’s a tremendous win for our program, tremendous win for our players,” Leach said.
Since the two teams have the same record, MSU will likely jump Ole Miss in bowl pecking order. Bowl game announcements will come Dec. 4.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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