Rebels team up for big victory

Published 11:39 am Tuesday, November 27, 2012

OXFORD — The effort and energy Ole Miss used in wrestling away the Egg Bowl trophy from Mississippi State could be traced to a Friday meeting between first-year coach Hugh Freeze and his players.

Ole Miss defensive back Charles Sawyer and senior nose guard Charles Pena both said a statement made by Freeze on the eve of the 85th Egg Bowl resonated with the team.

“Coach Freeze told us we should play out of love for one another and not out of hatred for the other team,” Sawyer said minutes after a hungry Ole Miss team vanquished Mississippi State 41-24 before 61,005 fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

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Sawyer said he bought in to Freeze’s comments. So did Pena. Both certainly showed it on the field.

Sawyer made a team-high nine tackles and had three pass breakups to thwart the passing game of Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell. In the decisive third quarter, when Ole Miss outscored Mississippi State 17-0 to turn a tie game into a 34-17 advantage, the Bulldogs managed just three first downs. Two of State’s four possessions in the quarter ended in three-and-outs while another drive ended with a Denzel Nkemdiche interception at midfield.

Pena, a senior from Yonkers, N.Y., dominated the line of scrimmage and made six tackles to shut off a State running game that netted only 30 rushing yards. He echoed Freeze’s message.

“Coach said, ‘Mississippi State has a lot of hate for us, but we should play for the love of one another,’” Pena said. “We knew we needed this win. We used Coach Freeze’s words. By the end of the third quarter, I knew we had it.”

What the Rebels got was Ole Miss’ sixth win and a berth to a bowl game. Where will be determined after the Southeastern Conference championship game between Alabama and Georgia on Saturday. With the winner of that game headed to the BCS national championship game, the rest of the SEC’s bowl eligible teams move up in the league’s pecking order.

Ole Miss is at the end of the line of the seven remaining bowl qualifiers and likely is headed to either the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis or the Music City Bowl in Nashville.

Freeze was happy enough with the Egg Bowl, but also took time to marvel at his team’s resilience. The Rebels came into the contest after consecutive heartbreaking losses to Vanderbilt (27-26) and LSU (41-35).

“If someone had told me I could be 6-6 after what I saw in the spring — I would have just chuckled first — and then gladly accepted it,” Freeze said. “I know we have had some challenges this season. But this team kept playing with an attitude and effort for all 12 games.”

Just to be sure they would go to the mat one more time for him, Freeze said he came up with his emotionally charged speech the night before.

“Regardless of how you motivate your team, every coach has to decide what is best for him and his program,” Freeze said. “We went about it a little different than some.”