STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A.J. Brown thought the ball was overthrown, but kept sprinting and stuck his arms out as far as they would go. The Mississippi receiver was astonished when the ball stuck right in his hands and he ran for a crucial touchdown.
After a year of bad news, things were finally going the Rebels' way in the Egg Bowl.
Ole Miss stunned No. 16 Mississippi State 31-28 on Thursday night, jumping out to a big second-half lead and holding on in the final minutes to win the rivalry game for the fourth time in six seasons.
The Rebels (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) had a 10-6 lead at halftime and then broke the game open in the third quarter with Brown's 77-yard touchdown catch and another 63-yard touchdown pass to D.K. Metcalf.
"I'm just so happy for our players and our fans," Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke said. "This means so much to them. It hasn't always been easy this year. We've been on some better teams with better records, but they'll always remember this year and how they fought through adversity."
It's a sweet ending to a rough season for the Rebels. Ole Miss isn't eligible for a bowl game because of a self-imposed postseason ban related to an NCAA infractions case that continues to hover over the program. The Rebels also lost head coach Hugh Freeze when he resigned during the summer after a school investigation into his phone records .
"The record wasn't what we wanted it to be," running back Jordan Wilkins said. "But we kept fighting as a team ... There's no better feeling than to finish it off like this."
Jordan Ta'amu threw for 247 yards and the two touchdowns to Brown and Metcalf. Wilkins added 110 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Brown, the SEC's leader in yards receiving, had six catches for 167 yards. The sophomore went to high school a few miles away from Mississippi State's campus at Starkville High School and had a big game in his return.
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4) was a two-touchdown favorite, but had to play most of the game without starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. He was carted off the field in the first quarter with a right leg injury.
Fitzgerald came into the game with 968 yards rushing this season, which was the most for a quarterback in the SEC. Without him, the Bulldogs turned to freshman Keytaon Thompson, but the offense wasn't nearly as effective until the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs trailed 31-13 with 8:23 remaining, but scored two touchdowns to pull to 31-28 with 1:05 left. Ole Miss recovered an onside kick to seal the victory.
"We just ran out of time there at the end," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Our guys gave relentless effort for 60 minutes. I just wish we had 61 or 62."
Mississippi State hurt itself with five turnovers — two interceptions and three fumbles.
The game took a rough turn later in the first quarter when Fitzgerald took a snap and ran to the left before being tackled to the ground. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior immediately grabbed at his right leg, which was bent at an awkward angle. He was down for several minutes before leaving on the cart.
Mullen said after the game that Fitzgerald dislocated his ankle, but didn't have any further information.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss has an eventful offseason ahead of it — the program is still awaiting word on its full punishment from the NCAA in its rules infractions case against the school. The Rebels will also decide if they'll keep Luke or turn to someone else to lead the program.
After the game, players chanted "We want Luke!" in the locker room and Brown said he thought Luke should be the coach going forward.
"I really love that guy and I want him to be the head coach," Brown said.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs had all the momentum coming into Thursday's game, but Fitzgerald's injury changed all that in a hurry.
Ole Miss' season is over.
Mississippi State prepares for its eighth straight trip to a bowl game.
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