OXFORD – It was a game that Mike Leach needed.
Leach says that all 12 games are important. You play them one-by-one then see where you are.
However, in some places some games matter more, like a 24-22 win over Ole Miss Thursday night.
Leach has struggled against in-state rivals since leaving Texas Tech 13 years ago. As Washington State coach, he lost his last seven games against Washington, then at Mississippi State his first two against Ole Miss.
In his redemption game, the Bulldogs didn't click all night on offense, but they put together impressive first-half touchdown drives with their first possession and their last, and that was enough to trail only 16-14 at halftime.
Then, as their defense stymied the Rebels’ vaunted run game, Leach's Air Raid finally came around. State took control in the late third and early fourth quarters, driving 78 yards for a field goal then 55 for a massive touchdown.
The Bulldogs won with defense, but it was Leach’s play call on third-and-7 from the Ole Miss 22 that was the dagger. Ole Miss cornerback Miles Battle had no safety help, and Rara Thomas was wide open.
Thomas didn’t drop the ball, and the Bulldogs now carry the Golden Egg back to Starkville.
The Ole Miss offensive line looked confused against the Bulldogs’ front, and while the Rebels made enough plays to get into scoring position, they continued to struggle in the red zone and settled for short field goals until a fourth-and-goal conversion with 1 minute, 55 seconds left in the second quarter.
Much of the half, the Rebels struggled to pop runs that have often extended drives this season, and problems were compounded by dropped passes from their most reliable receivers.
State held Ole Miss to 331 total yards and just 74 on the ground, both season-lows. A week ago, the Rebels had 703 yards, 473 rushing at Arkansas and still lost.
This has been a different week for Ole Miss as coach Lane Kiffin has failed to remove himself from contention for the Auburn job. A re-worked Ole Miss contract that would bump him about $2 million from his 2022 salary of $7,250,000 remains unsigned.
How it all plays out remains to be seen, but Kiffin didn’t give his agent, Jimmy Sexton, any more leverage Thursday night.
Sexton watched the first half from the press box.
The first question Kiffin took in his postgame presser was, "Do you anticipate being the Ole Miss coach next season?"
He answered, "Yes, I do."
Auburn plays at Alabama Saturday. Regardless of how both sides might feel at the moment, Kiffin's name will lurk in the background until new Auburn athletics director John Cohen announces a hire.
Kiffin has done wonders rebuilding an Ole Miss program that lacked interest and excitement when he arrived, but he has fallen off of late and was out-coached in the rivalry game. Ole Miss started 7-0 but heads to bowl season with losses in four of its last five games.
Both Mississippi teams are 8-4.
Leach’s Air Raid offense had been unimpressive against the better defenses in the SEC and in conference road games. It hasn’t produced in line with expectations for a unit with eight returning starters.
Leach has been critical of his wide receivers throughout the season, just begging for someone to step up. On Thanksgiving night, they answered the call a year after critical drops played a part in a 31-21 loss to Ole Miss in Starkville.
Leach can sell his program as trending up, and that’s technically correct as the Bulldogs have improved from four wins to seven and now eight in his three seasons.
For now, he can celebrate a rivalry game win, and in this state that’s not insignificant.
All the games count, but some count a little more.
Success! An email has been sent to with a link to confirm list signup.
Error! There was an error processing your request.