STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI/Ole Miss Athletics) – Moments after the Ole Miss sideline made its way over to the south end zone at Davis Wade Stadium to grab the Golden Egg Trophy after salting away a 31-28 win, Matt Luke found himself in the middle of a scrum of his players so tight it was nearly suffocating. Senior Marquis Haynes hugged his head coach as chants of “LUKE, LUKE” were bellowed from his players gathered around him.
The biggest learning experience of the 41-year-old’s life culminated in a moment he’ll never forget and the realization of a dream he’d sought after since he was a child.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Luke said with a beaming grin and the trophy seated next to him at his postgame press conference. “I am so grateful for this opportunity. It has been a dream of mine. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity.”
This season was filled with hard lessons and plenty of opportunities to fold in the face of adversity. Luke stepped up to try to be the glue to hold his alma mater’s football program together when it seemed like everything was crumbling around him.
“He’s a Rebel, he wore the uniform,” Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics Ross Bjork said. “He dove in and took it. That is what leadership is all about.”
Bjork asked Luke to hold things together and knew he had a man that understood this university better than most. Through their conversations over the years, Bjork knew Luke wanted to be a head coach one day. This was an opportunity, but also one that appeared daunting.
“People need to remember he stepped up in a really challenging time,” Bjork said. “There was no script for this, but he stepped up and said `I am in.’ I wanted someone to step up and rally the team. He did it. The staff did it. That is what he needs to be remembered for. The guys never quit.”
Luke embraced it from day one and kept this team invested even when it seemed dire. After two blowout losses to Auburn and Alabama capping an 0-3 road trip. After a 24-point collapse to Arkansas, the team answered with a road win at Kentucky. Luke spoke all year about this team getting back up off the mat and fighting. He helped them do so each time.
“Just the love he has for us is amazing,” wide receiver A.J. Brown said. “We have been through so much as a team. We can talk to him about anything. He is always there for us when we need him.”
The game itself was a strange one, with parallels beyond Luke realizing a dream. Brown’s return to his hometown of Starkville began in the first 30 seconds of the game. He caught a 58-yard ball from Jordan Ta’amu. It set up a 22-yard Jordan Wilkins run later to set the tone and put Ole Miss up 7-0 less than 40 seconds into the ball game.
“I was kind of antsy,” Brown said. “I was really just ready to do something.”
Ole Miss picked off Nick Fitzgerald on the next offensive series. The defense, a unit that has endured its fair share of hard lessons this season, forced five turnovers on the night. The bulk of them came at times when Mississippi State was beginning to garner momentum.
“They’ve (turnovers) been deserting us all year,” McGriff said. “We have been saying all year that they’ll come in groves when they come. What a great time for them to come in the biggest game of the year. You have to love it. I thought these kids played so hard.”
Fitzgerald left the game on the next drive after suffering a gruesome ankle injury that took the air out of Davis-Wade Stadium. Fitzgerald gave the crowd a thumbs up after he was carted off of the field as well as a passionate message to his successor, freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson.
“My heart goes out to him,” Luke said. “He’s a heck of a player and I hated to see that.”
Thompson moved the ball well in spots, but turnovers stifled any sort of rhythm the Bulldog offense tried to find. Mississippi State’s defense kept them in the ballgame until about midway through the third quarter. Brown got loose on a deep ball that resulted in a 78-yard touchdown pass that sweetened his trip home. D.K. Metcalf followed that up with a 63-yard score of his own to give the Rebels a 24-6 lead. Mississippi State made a late charge with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. A Jordan Wilkins 46-yard touchdown run midway through the final quarter ended up being enough for the Rebels to prevent a comeback.
The scene on the field after the game was one of elation. Marquis Haynes and DeMarquis Gates hugged one another on the field. Both of them played their final game in an Ole Miss uniform. Both came back for their senior year to guide this program through trying times. Both played through injuries and stabilized a defense that got off to a slow start to begin the year.
“I’ll always remember this year and how they fought through adversity,” Luke said. “These seniors went 3-1 over Mississippi State. I am just really proud of them.”
Wilkins, in his final game, became the first 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster did it in 2010. He had 110 yards on 14 carries and a pair of scores. Brown broke Laquon Treadwell’s single-season record for receiving yards, finishing with 1,252 yards on the year. He had six catches for 166 yards and one touchdown.
Senior Gary Wunderlich became the school’s all-time leading scorer, as well as the all-time leader in both field goals and PATs made. Jordan Ta’amu went 10-of-22 for 247 yards and two touchdowns, capping off a 3-2 record as a starter. Like Luke, Ta’amu stepped up and stabilized an offense that lost its leader Shea Patterson to injury.
“I am elated about how the team responded,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “We talked about about needing to make one-on-one plays and we did that.”
A senior class who has seen some of the greatest moments and lowest valleys in program history, finished their Ole Miss career with a moment they’ll never forget.
“We kept fighting as a team through all the adversity we faced,” Wilkins said. “There is no better way to finish it off than this.”
Luke doesn’t know what the future holds for him and did not want to let his mind venture that far on this night. He wanted to go back into the locker room and be with the kids who mobbed him on the field after the game. The ones that gave him two ice baths that had him picking chunks of ice out of his pockets in the locker room after the game. The same players he guided through some tough moments this year and the ones that helped him earn six wins in a season in which expectations couldn’t possibly be calculated. The challenges and uncertainty this team faced made it easy for them to wilt. Luke encouraged them to keep pushing.
“After all we have been through, it brings us closer together,” Luke said. “We have developed a tight bond with all we have been through and I am just so grateful to these guys.”