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Three and Out: Keys to Ole Miss-MSU

Three areas to watch as No. 18 Ole Miss hosts No. 4 Mississippi State in the regular season finale both teams Saturday.

Stopping State's One-Two Punch

Mississippi State boast the SEC's third-best rushing attack and two of the league's top six rushers in junior running back Josh Robinson (98.6 ypg) and junior quarterback Dak Prescott (81.0 ypg). The duo have also combined for 23 rushing touchdowns.

The SEC's leader in total offense, Prescott leads SEC quarterbacks and ranks fourth nationally among all quarterbacks in rushing yards, averaging 81.0 yards per game, and ranks second nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns.

Nicknamed "Bowling Ball" for his 5-foot-9, 215-pound stature and running style, Robinson ranks second in the SEC, averaging 6.6 yards per carry, including an SEC-best 6.8 yards per carry in league games.

In their lone blemish on the season, a 25-20 loss at No. 1 Alabama, the Bulldogs were held to 138 yards on 40 carries, a season-low 3.45 yards per carry. Forced to throw, Prescott attempted a season-high 48 passes, completing just 56.3 percent of his passes and throwing a season-high three interceptions.

"Whether he had a bad day or Alabama had a good day or maybe a little of both, that was a real big thing," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of Prescott. "They didn't let him be effective running for the most part. Every once in a while he got a play in that game. I thought they rattled him a little bit. He threw three interceptions and had a lot of pressure just with their basic stuff, what they do at Alabama."

Red Zone, Turnover Battles

Ole Miss and Mississippi State have combined for 18 wins, the most at the time of the matchup in series history, and one of the keys for both teams has been red-zone defense.

The Rebels rank third nationally, allowing opponents to score touchdowns only 38 percent of the time once they enter the red zone, while the Bulldogs rank lead the nation, allowing opponents to score touchdowns only 35 percent of the time.

This area made a clear difference in Mississippi State's wins over Auburn and Arkansas and its loss to Alabama. Mississippi State allowed a combined three touchdowns in 11 red-zone opportunities in the two wins compared to three touchdowns in five opportunities in the loss to Alabama.

Another key has been turnover margin, where Ole Miss ranks third in the SEC and Mississippi State ranks ninth, but the difference in the wins and losses is where the stat is key.

Ole Miss has a plus-11 turnover margin in their eight wins compared to a minus-3 turnover margin in their three losses, with a minus-5 turnover margin against Arkansas and the timeliness of the turnovers against LSU and Auburn proving to be a difference.

An opportunistic defense, Mississippi State was unable to force a turnover against Alabama on the way to a minus-3 turnover margin, compared to a plus-3 turnover margin in its 10 wins.

"The one thing that really stands out if you look at the three games is turnovers," said head coach Freeze, referring to the Rebels' losses to LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. "That's probably a direct correlation to us not having success. That'll be a big, big key."

Legacy on the Line for Wallace?

Senior quarterback Bo Wallace has led Ole Miss to some big wins in his career, defeating Mississippi State in 2012, LSU in 2013 and Alabama earlier this season, and Saturday's rivalry game with No. 4 Mississippi State presents another opportunity to cement his legacy.

The school's all-time leader in career total yards, Wallace has helped lead Ole Miss to national relevance, having stepped into a program that had won just two games in 2011 and had lost 14 straight Southeastern Conference games.

Wallace has had his ups and downs, notably in his two previous Egg Bowls, completing 15-of-22 passes for 294 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-24 win in Oxford two years ago and then completing 26-of-40 passes with three interception and a lost fumble in a 17-10 overtime loss in Starkville last year.

With two games remaining in his career, it's premature to label his legacy, but his performance Saturday will likely play a role in how he will remembered, for better or worse.

"You hope people focus on all the good," said Freeze, when asked about Wallace's legacy. "He's led us to three consecutive bowl games. He's been very, very relevant in returning relevancy to this program in the conference and nationally. He's now become the all-time total offense owner of that record, passing the great Eli Manning. 

"Those are some great things. I think in time people will recognize that and he'll be remembered for those things. Hopefully he can add another two to it, win another bowl to it and get the Egg home."

Wommack, Rebels Prep for Prescott

Battling injury, junior quarterback Dak Prescott came off the bench and helped rally Mississippi State to a come-from-behind 17-10 win in last year's Egg Bowl. He led a drive that ended with the game-tying field goal at 10-10 and then he ran for what proved to the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

This season, he has helped Mississippi State to a 10-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the latest College Football Playoff poll. He leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in points responsible for, accounting for 36 total touchdowns and 216 points.

"They're a very good football team," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "Dak Prescott makes them better than very good."

The SEC's leader in total offense averaging 327.7 yards per game, Prescott ranks third in passing (246.7 ypg) and sixth in rushing (81.0 ypg). His 23 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing touchdowns also lead the league.

With more experience and better health, Prescott has improved as a passer, upping his completion percentage (58.4 to 61.4) and his yards per attempt (7.3 to 8.8) from last year.

"I think the injury (last season) and the experience," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "That's the two biggest things. He got beat up in that Texas A&M game last year. You can tell he's an extremely tough kid. He fought through an ankle injury in that Arkansas game. He just keeps pushing through it. And he's throwing the ball much better. He knows where he's going with it."

"He is a major part of their program," graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford said. "It starts with him. It starts with the way he gets his guys to play. He can throw well, and he can also run the ball. That's always a big thing when you're faced with a quarterback that has a run threat also."

Prescott also combines with junior running back Josh Robinson for a powerful one-two bunch in the Mississippi State backfield. Robinson ranks third in the SEC in rushing yards (98.6 ypgs) in rushing touchdowns (11).

"I watched our game last year and some games from last year when he was playing," said Wommack of Robinson. "He has a low center of gravity. I thought we tackled him last year, but you better gang tackle him. There is one play that comes to mind against Kentucky where he broke eight tackles, spun this way and that way. It's a mindset with him. You can tell that he's determined to make positive yardage every time he touches the ball."

Alabama has had the most success defending Prescott this season, holding him to 56.3 percent passing for 290 yards with two touchdowns and a season-worst three interceptions in a 25-20 win for the Crimson Tide. Alabama also contained him on the ground, limited him to just 82 yards on 22 carries, a 3.73 yards per carry average.

"Whether he had a bad day or Alabama had a good day or maybe a little of both, that was a real big thing," Wommack said. "They didn't let him be effective running for the most part - every once in a while he got a play in that game. I thought they rattled him a little bit. He threw three interceptions and had a lot of pressure just with their basic stuff, what they do at Alabama."

Wallace 'Ready to Go'

As head coach Hugh Freeze said Monday, senior quarterback Bo Wallace is expected to play Saturday at home against Mississippi State.

 "He's been limited some, but you would have to chain him down to keep him from going in this game," said Freeze on the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference Wednesday. "He's getting better every do, so I anticipate him being ready to go."

First Look At The Egg Bowl

The Egg Bowl returns to Thanksgiving night for the first time since 2003, which is also the last time Ole Miss won in Starkville. 

Thursday's game is the 110th meeting of one of the nation's most-played rivalries and the 86th "Battle of the Golden Egg," as the two schools stated playing for the trophy in 1927. The Rebels (7-4, 3-4 SEC) look to defend the Golden Egg and improve their bowl standing, while the Bulldogs (5-6, 2-6) are playing for bowl eligibility.

"The Egg Bowl intensity is always going to be about as high as you get in a given game," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "With them having to win to a bowl like we were last year, if it's possible to ratchet it up a little more for your kids, particularly your seniors, that's something that will do it if it's possible. You don't have to have that to make this game feel emotional. But if there's anything that would make it more, it would be those factors."

"I know they're going to play hard against us," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "Their backs are against the wall. We know how that feels. They're in the same situation as we were last year. They're going to come out and play, so we have to be ready for them."

Keeping The Momentum

Freeze said they gained considerable momentum after last year's Egg Bowl win. That win clinched bowl eligibility and a berth in the BBVA Compass Bowl, which may have been a determining factor for several recruits in their decision.

And on National Signing Day, Ole Miss landed a consensus top-10 signing class, which included eight Mississippi prospects, headlined by Huskie Tony Conner (Batesville) and cornerback Derrick Jones (Eupuroa).

The Rebels look to reclaim the Egg Bowl and continue to build momentum with a win Thursday night.

"I have seen it work both ways," Freeze said of the recruiting impact of winning the Egg Bowl. "There's not any recipe you can put on it. I know that it doesn't to win, and it's going to help you with some. But by the time February rolls around, there are a lot of things that have occurred, people have made decisions and relationships have been built. It's not the only factor, but it doesn't hurt, and it will help in some cases."

Wallace Feeling Better


Wallace was back at practice Monday and said he is at the end of his flu-like symptoms he suffered from in Saturday's 24-10 loss to No. 8 Missouri.

"There won't be any effect at all," Wallace said of any lasting effects. "Tomorrow, I'll be almost 100 percent almost."

Despite the fatigue and feeling awful, Wallace was was 26-of-42 for 244 yards with an interception. 

"It was awful," Wallace said of Saturday. "I knew I was going to attempt to play. It was just hard to focus Saturday on what I had to do at the hotel, when I was just worried about trying to feel. I played OK. Definitely, I could have played better. It's something I'm not proud of."

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Wallace-to-Moncrief

In last year's meeting, the Ole Miss offense exploded for 24 unanswered points in the second half to take a 41-17 lead, as the Rebels went on to win 41-24 and clinch bowl eligibility. 

Wallace was 15-of-22 for 294 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. His favorite target was junior Donte Moncrief who had seven catches for a career-high 173 yards and three touchdowns.

"They're a little different than they were last year," Freeze said of Mississippi State's coverages. "They will still do some of the same stuff, but the percentages are different."

A year later, Wallace ranks third in the SEC in total offense (286.0 yards per game) and fourth in passing (264.4 ypg), while Moncrief ranks top 10 in the SEC in receiving (72.8 ypg), receptions (4.5/game) and receiving touchdowns (5).

"We showed them some looks that we didn't show earlier in the year," Wallace said of last year's meeting. "We will have a few new wrinkles in this week just like every week, and hopefully we will able to score some point on them."

Uncertainty At Quarterback For MSU


For Mississippi State, sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott ranks fifth in the SEC in total yards (251.6 yards per game) and leads the team in both passing (171.3 yards per game) and rushing (80.2 ypg). 

However, Prescott has missed the last two games due to injury and is listed as the backup on this week's depth chart to freshman quarterback Damian Williams, who is 14-of-27 for 186 yards with an interception this year. Williams also scored the game-winning touchdown with a 25-yard scamper in a 24-17 win over Arkansas last week.

Senior quarterback Tyler Russell, who has started the last two games, is not listed on the depth chart, having been replaced by Williams in each game due to injury. All this uncertainty at quarterback presents a different challenge to Ole Miss this week.

"I really don't know exactly what's going on," Freeze said. "I know they have been resting Dak, and the other two have played in the last few game. I saw where Tyler left the game last weekend at the end. I don't know what the significance of that is. We have to prepare for all three I think. Fortunately, two of the three are very similar and do the same things, and the other is still similar. They are like watching us on film. They do most of the same stuff that we do. You don't like not knowing, but that's the situation we're in, so we have to prepare for all three."

The Bulldogs are averaging 438.0 yards per game, which ranks ninth in the SEC and would also break the school record of 422.0 yards per game set in 1982. Another weapon in the offense is junior wide receiver Jameon Lewis, who leads the team with 49 catches for 635 yards and five touchdowns, to go along with three rushing touchdowns and three passing touchdowns.

"They want to run the football and then play-action pass, just like our offense does," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "It's an advantage for us, and both defenses, because we get to see this type of thing all the time. We have to prepare for it all."

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