OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) - The opportunities for Ole Miss to grab a win over Texas A&M on senior night were tangible, sitting there in front of them. But penalties and a sputtering offense prevented them from doing so in a 31-24 loss to the Aggies in the season's penultimate game.
"It was a tale of two halves," head coach Matt Luke said. "We struggled to protect the passer in the second half and did not execute offensively. Obviously, you cannot turn the ball over and win the game. I was proud of our defense, we just did not get it done in the second half offensively.
A pace that started out so rapid that each team scored two touchdowns in the first 11 minutes of the game, slowed considerably after that. Each team scored on its first two drives. Ole Miss by way of a seven play, 70 yard drive capped off by a 27 yard touchdown pass from Jordan Ta'amu to A.J. Brown, and a 64 yard Jordan Wilkins touchdown rush on the first play of its second drive.
Ta'amu was 19-34 for 189 yards and two touchdowns on the night. Wilkins had 147 yards and a score on 19 carries. 123 of those came in the first half.
A&M answered each one with two 75 plus yard drives of their own. The score was quickly 14-14 just over ten minutes in. Things slowed after that. Each team scored one more touchdown apiece and a Gary Wunderlich 28 yard field goal with a few seconds left in the second quarter gave Ole Miss a 24-21 halftime lead.
The second half is really when the pace of the game fully evolved. Ole Miss totaled 325 yards in the first half and just 66 in the second. Texas A&M had only 91 yards of offense in the second half alone, but won the game on a late field goal and a Derrick Tucker pick six of Ta'amu in the third quarter. Ta'amu was flushed out of the pocket on the heels of his own end zone. He threw it across the middle, Tucker stepped in front of it and took off towards thee end zone. It proved costly for Ole Miss.
"I have to be more careful with the ball," Ta'amu said. "Penalties killed us a lot and we shot ourselves in the foot."
Perhaps the strangest part of the loss is how the Rebel defense faired against the run. The unit has struggled mightily against the ground game in each of the previous 10 games, but tonight allowed just 119 yards on 44 rushes. Texas A&M's Travis Ford picked up 43 of those on his first carry. Ole Miss yielded just 76 yards on the next 43 Aggie attempts.
"These young men made their mind up," McGriff said. "We went out and did our job. We fit our gaps and tore off blocks. I am looking forward to look at the tape to find the biggest difference."
Breeland Speaks was moved around the field a lot in disguised looks, and it worked well for the Rebels. Part of that was thanks to Ross Donnelly and Austrian Robinson returning from injuries to provide some depth.
"That is what allowed us to move Breeland around," McGriff said. "The first goal line stand we were able to go to our heavy package."
Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel was 19-32 for 272 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Rebel defense held the Aggies under 400 yards of total offense for the game.
"I am proud of our defense for bowing their neck in the second half," Luke said. "They played really well."
But the offense inexplicably sputtered over the course of the final 30 minutes. Costly penalties put the Rebels behind the chains and out of rhythm.
"The difference in the two halves is that we did not execute plays we made in the first half," offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "In this league, against these defenses and these teams you have to execute for four quarters. I think all season, the more of a complete game we play, the better of an opportunity it gives us to win. This was not one of them."
Texas A&M's pass rush got to Ta'amu and had him scrambling for most of the night. All of that equated to the Rebels worst offensive half of the year and a defeat. The Aggies were quick up front and outmanned Ole Miss' offensive line.
"Their whole defense is talented with a lot of speed," Ta'amu said. "I tried to make plays with my feet and they were there to tackle me."
Ole Miss was penalized nine times in the second half and 12 for the game. The receiving corps had a few uncharacteristic drops. Everything seemed to be a bit out of sync.
Ta'amu took a shot to the face in the first half on a play that resulted in a targeting call. He and Longo both noted that Ta'amu didn't feel quite the same after that play.
"I was a little dizzy at first," Ta'amu said. "But then I felt better and shook it off."
The defense stood tall for a goal line stand with two minutes to go in the game. Kevin Sumlin elected to kick a field goal from half-foot away from the end zone to give Ole Miss a chance at 31-24. The Rebels went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, sealing OleMiss' fate.
The Rebels will have to put this behind them quickly as they will prepare for their third game in 12 days against Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night. It will be the final game of the 2017 season.
"It's tough," Luke said. "I challenged them to get up off the mat. They have gotten up several times and this is obviously a very big game coming up. We have to go back to work tomorrow to get this taste out of our mouths."