OXFORD, Miss. -- The last time Ole Miss went to LSU, in 2012, it had no business being in the game. The Rebels were 5-5, playing on the road against a Top 10 team. But when they took the lead in the fourth quarter, first-year coach Hugh Freeze began thinking to himself about what a win would mean for this team and this program if they could hold on.
“I found myself thinking about a statement that Coach [Johnny] Vaught had made when he was here about beating LSU in Baton Rouge: ‘You’ve never truly really coached the Rebels until you’ve beaten LSU in Baton Rouge,’" Freeze said. "I thought that for a minute and tried to get back in the moment because there was way too much time left.”
Shortly after that thought crossed Freeze’s mind, Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. It all changed in the blink of an eye. With less than a minute left, LSU scored another touchdown to win the game.
But as Freeze looks back on that night, it’s not necessarily a bad memory. In fact, he says it’s one of the more enjoyable games he’s ever coached in.
“We were super competitive, right there in it,” Freeze said. “Had it not been for a punt return, who knows what the outcome would have been. But I had a blast.”
Quarterback Bo Wallace also remembers the game fondly. Despite three interceptions, it was one of his best performances that first season at Ole Miss. The then-sophomore threw for 310 yards, rushed for 54 yards and scored four total touchdowns. His 30-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief was what gave the Rebels the lead in the fourth quarter.
“I remember the atmosphere,” Wallace said. “We were playing really well. We were young and really didn’t realize what we were doing. To us, it was almost like a moral victory that we went into LSU and we played against those guys the way we did with all of the NFL talent they had on their team.”
Wallace wasn’t kidding either. LSU had nine players taken in the NFL draft after that season, including six defensive players selected in the first three rounds.
But that was then. This is now.
This season, the roles have reversed as the teams prepare to play Saturday. Ole Miss is the Top 10 team, ranked No. 3 nationally, and LSU is the young team with nothing to lose. Ole Miss has the nasty defense full of NFL talent, while LSU has an offense that’s still improving with every game.
The mindset has changed, too. The Rebels are no longer interested in moral victories.
“We don’t talk about going to play anybody close right now,” Freeze said. “We want to get a plan together and prepare like we’re going to win. Hopefully we’ll have a chance in the fourth quarter to do so.”
“When we go down there, we’re going to expect to go in and win a football game,” Wallace added. “There aren’t any moral victories or we go down there, play well and feel good about it. We go down there fully expecting to win.”
That’s easier said than done in this rivalry. The Rebels have lost five of their last six games in Baton Rouge, and current LSU coach Les Miles is 45-4 in night games played at Tiger Stadium.
There are also a number of Ole Miss players, including the entire 2013 recruiting class, who have yet to play in Death Valley. They were a part of the thrilling victory in Oxford last year, but they don’t know what it’s like to play the Tigers on the road.
“I heard about stuff being thrown at you, a lot of words coming at you that I can’t repeat,” sophomore tight end Evan Engram said. “With this rivalry and the tradition that this game holds, I know the stands are going to be rocking and there’s going to be some crazy stuff the fans are going to be doing. But it’s going to be fun.”
For Freeze and the players who were there in 2012, the only way this year’s game is going to be fun is if Ole Miss leaves town with a victory.