November 25, 2012 1:12:04 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
OXFORD -- University of Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze identified the No. 1 task quite early when he was named the school's new coach.
To change the culture, Freeze had to teach the Rebels how to win.
In a season full of close losses, Ole Miss played its most complete game Saturday night in a 41-24 win against archrival Mississippi State University at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The victory allowed the Rebels to finish the regular season at 6-6 and 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference. Ole Miss will play in a bowl game for the first time since Houston Nutt took the school to back-to-back Cotton Bowls after the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
"This is really big," Ole Miss sophomore safety Cody Prewitt said. "We have been waiting for a night like this for some time. It's a great feeling to finally get No. 6, and we are looking forward to continuing our season."
The Rebels took baby steps for most of the season. Ole Miss snapped a 15-game conference losing streak Oct. 13 with a victory against Auburn University. A week later, the Rebels made it back-to-back wins in conference play for the first time since 2009.
Still, there was more learning to do. Ole Miss proved an ability to play solid football for stretches, but it couldn't put a complete game together against quality opponent. Trying to get the sixth victory proved hard, as Ole Miss lost at the University of Georgia, blew a 23-6 lead in a home loss to Vanderbilt University, and fell at LSU on a final-second touchdown.
"Everything we went through made us tougher," Freeze said. "We had to learn how to win. It is so hard to do that and there are so many phases to it. On top of that, you are learning how to do it in the most difficult conference in the nation."
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace's play mirrored Ole Miss' up-and-down performances. Wallace set multiple national passing records while leading East Mississippi Community College to the 2011 national championship. Still, playing in the SEC is a different animal.
Wallace had three turnovers Saturday night -- two interceptions and a lost fumble, but the Bulldogs scored zero points off the takeaways.
With MSU unable to cash in, the Rebels really liked their chances tied at 17 at halftime.
"I think coming into the game I let my emotions play into the game more than they should have," Wallace said. "But in the second half I settled down and eliminated turnovers, and it worked."
For Ole Miss, the second-half game plan worked to sheer perfection.
The Rebels scored on four straight possessions, including three passing touchdowns by Wallace. A game that once appeared destined to go to the final play was virtually over after Wallace hit sophomore Donte Moncrief for back-to-back touchdowns and a 34-17 lead late in the third quarter.
Moncrief had seven catches for a career-high 173 yards and three touchdowns. It was his fourth 100-yard receiving game this season. The 173 yards were the most by an Ole Miss player against MSU.
"He was a one-man best out there for a stretch of play," Freeze said. "He was hot, and we did a great job of getting him the ball in space."
After a challenging first half, Wallace needed a lift.
"As an offense, we feel like we have the capability of scoring on every series," Wallace said. "It is frustrating when you don't get the job done and it is your fault. We may have been a little tight to start the game. The first touchdown should have calmed everybody down, but it took a while to find a rhythm."
Ole Miss needed less than two minutes to score on the game's first possession. Wallace found Jamal Mosley on a 25-yard touchdown. MSU answered with a 100-yard kick return from Jameon Lewis.
The Rebels managed only one touchdown the rest of the half, as Wallace hit Moncrief for a 77-yard touchdown pass on blown coverage.
Still, the turnovers prevented Ole Miss from expanding the lead.
MSU failed to convert a fourth-and-2 at the Ole Miss 18-yard line. It later got a 23-yard field goal from Devon Bell to force the halftime tie.
In the second half, Ole Miss dominated with scoring drives of 49, 50, 41, and 87 yards.
"It finally fell into place for us," Moncrief said. "Last year hurt, so we got the bowl game this year and I'm happy."
Wallace was 15 of 22 for 294 yards and five touchdowns. With 334 yards of total offense, Wallace became the second Ole Miss player to amass 3,000 yards of total offense in a season. Eli Manning accomplished the feat twice. In just one season, Wallace has thrown for 2,843 yards, which is fourth best in school history for a career.
Junior running back Jeff Scott (28 carries, 111 yards) recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing game. As a team, Ole Miss recorded its third game of 500-plus yards of total offense with 527 yards.
"You saw a football team take the next step tonight," Freeze said. "I am happy and thrilled for the players. I am also happy for the fans that had to go through losing the momentum in this series."
Ole Miss' defense was equally dominating in the second half. The Rebels had a second-half shutout until Chad Bumphis caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott with seven seconds left in regulation.
"It's hard to explain. It was a great game," Ole Miss freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. "We played our hearts out. We have been so upset so many times this year. Those losses were heart-breaking. I feel honored to get this one. It's just a great feeling."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter