OXFORD, Miss. – Mississippi State runs the Sip.
Now, will Lane Kiffin run from the Sip? He says not.
If Kiffin had planned to take a final bow Thursday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the Bulldogs wrecked the party like an unwelcome wedding guest who guzzles all the whiskey at the open bar.
This Egg Bowl was ugly. Many are.
Rain fell throughout the second half. Offense often looked like a foreign concept for both teams.
Mississippi State’s defense became the star. The Bulldogs delivered a flurry of red-zone stops.
Needing one final stop, Bulldogs senior Randy Charlton deflected a shovel pass on a two-point play that Ole Miss needed to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
For the first time in Mike Leach’s tenure, the Golden Egg is headed for Starkville after a 24-22 comeback victory.
Where is Kiffin headed? Nowhere, if we take him at his word.
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The Ole Miss coach has been widely viewed as the frontrunner for Auburn’s coaching opening, and questions about his future loomed over this Egg Bowl, but he said after the game he plans to stay at Ole Miss.
I asked Kiffin directly: If Auburn offers him its coaching job, does he anticipate being Ole Miss’ coach next season?
“I do,” he said, unequivocally.
By Egg Bowl standards, this was game without hijinks. That contrasted what can only be described as a wacky week for No. 20 Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4 SEC). It jumped the rails after WCBI-TV reported Monday that Kiffin planned to accept the Auburn job after the Egg Bowl. Kiffin responded with a series of tweets in which he mocked the journalist who reported the story.
And yet, Kiffin never said the words Ole Miss fans needed to hear – that he was signing a contract extension to remain the Rebels’ coach. Amid all of his tweets, he also never denied his interest in Auburn.
Kiffin offered his strongest public assurance of his commitment to Ole Miss after the Egg Bowl. He called the TV report “false reporting” and said he told his players as much this week.
Twice after the game, he said he plans to coach Ole Miss next season.
Kiffin is anything but predictable, and, more than a decade ago, he spurned Tennessee. So, some suspense will linger until Auburn announces a hire.
If Kiffin departs, his final contribution to Ole Miss will have been a flop.
Kiffin is gifted with a bright mind for offense, but you wouldn’t have known that Thursday, especially throughout the second half.
This night belonged to the Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) – and, in particular, to Zach Arnett’s defense. MSU bottled up Ole Miss’ vaunted rushing attack.
Six Ole Miss drives penetrated the 35-yard line. Only two ended in touchdowns.
Kiffin often plays the part of riverboat gambler, but he pivoted to a more conservative approach for much of this game. That worked, for the most part, until he opted to go for fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, with Ole Miss clinging to a 16-14 lead. The Rebels ran a play-action pass, but no receivers ran routes.
“We had a miscommunication,” Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart said.
Convert the fourth down and punch in a touchdown, and Ole Miss wins.
Take the field goal, and Ole Miss probably wins.
Run a play-action pass with no one to throw to, and Ole Miss loses.
A drive that began at MSU’s 36-yard line produced no points. The Bulldogs took the lead on their ensuing possession. They never surrendered it.
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Ole Miss’ defense deserved a better fate. Otis Reese intercepted a pass. Tavius Robinson and Troy Brown forced fumbles. The defensive line harassed Will Rogers. But a Rebels defense that recovered a week after getting gashed by Arkansas received no help from Ole Miss’ offense.
Arnett’s defense didn’t receive much help, either, but just enough, and Rogers found an open Rara Thomas in the fourth quarter a pivotal touchdown.
The narrative of MSU’s season hinged on this game. Leach couldn’t afford to lose this rivalry for a third straight season. Arnett’s defense made sure he didn’t.
The Bulldogs endured one of the nation’s toughest schedules, but they were armed with a veteran roster and a third-year starting quarterback. They raced to a 5-1 record to open the season, so going 7-5 and heading to a lackluster bowl would have felt like a squandered opportunity.
Coaches say those who win in November get remembered. Well, State went 3-1 in November, and, for the first time since 2019, it won the most important game on its schedule.
The Bulldogs are now an attractive candidate for the Citrus Bowl.
More importantly, they reclaimed control of the Sip, while Ole Miss awaits Kiffin’s next move.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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