In head coach Hugh Freeze's first season at Ole Miss, the Rebels gained bowl eligibility with a 41-24 win over in-state rival Mississippi State, then rolled to a 38-17 win in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh.
A year later, after a consensus top-10 recruiting class, Freeze and the Rebels won a pair of road games at Vanderbilt and Texas, but Saturday's 27-24 win over No. 6 LSU marked a signature victory of a different kind. It was Ole Miss' first win over a top-10 foe since defeating then-No. 8 LSU in 2009.
But Ole Miss had been close under Freeze.
In last year's meeting in Baton Rouge, La., the Rebels lost a 41-35 shootout to then-No. 8 LSU, and just last week, the Rebels lost a 41-38 heartbreaker to then-No. 9 Texas A&M in Oxford, but Saturday proved to be a breakthrough for the program.
"I couldn't be more proud of that and those kids to go through what they've been though, with the injuries and the outside world having their opinion of things," Freeze said. "In the back of your mind, you always wonder as a coach if you can get a team ready to do things like this when you're shorthanded and coming off an extremely disappointing loss."
"I was really emotional," said junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who passed for over 300 yards for the third straight game. "I almost lost it. I almost cried. It felt like everything was lifted off of us. It was just an emotional time. I'm so excited for our guys and our defense, for them to play the way they did with the starters they had out."
With 3:15 left in a tied 24-24 game, Ole Miss had the ball on its own 15-yard line. As part of a 14-play, 61-yard drive that included two third-down conversions of 3rd-and-6 and a 3rd-and-9, the Rebels had driven the ball to the LSU 24.
It was a shot at redemption for senior kicker Andrew Ritter, whose 29-yard field goal was blocked earlier in the quarter with a chance to make it a two-possession lead for Ole Miss, and he drilled the 41-yard field goal to give the Rebels a 27-24 lead with two seconds left on the clock.
"I'm happy for Andrew Ritter," Freeze said. "He asked to be redshirted his senior year last year to come back. That kick will make memories for a lifetime for him, to beat one of your biggest rivals, to recapture the Magnolia Bowl for Ole Miss. I'm glad it worked out for him."
"It felt really good," said Ritter of the kick off his foot. "You know when you hit a good ball, and you know when you hit a bad ball, and when I hit that ball, I knew I hit it good."
With injuries all over the place, the Ole Miss defense held LSU well under its 41.4 points per game average and pitched a first-half shutout, the first time the Tigers had been shutout in the first half since a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship.
"Dave (Wommack) and his staff did a great job with preparing those kids, being so shorthanded and having to shorten practices because of that," Freeze said. "I sat in on their meetings this week more than I ever had before, and the plan he had I thought was really good."
That first half also saw three interceptions, including two in the end zone, of LSU senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who led the SEC and ranked fourth in the nation in pass efficiency and had thrown 15 touchdowns compared to two interceptions entering the game.
"They were huge," said Freeze of the interceptions. "It kept our crowd alive and in the game. It kept the lead and momentum with us, and it gave our kids on defense more confidence."
"They came at critical points in the game," said junior safety Cody Prewitt, who intercepted his team-high fourth interception Saturday. "Those were huge, huge plays. It turned the game for us. They were big plays for us instead of big plays for them. That's what you have to do. You have to make those kind of plays in critical moments in the game, and we really did that."
On the other side of the ball, led by Wallace, the Ole Miss offense eclipsed 500 yards of total offense for just the second time this season. Wallace completed 30-of-39 passes for 346 yards, and passed Archie Manning on the Ole Miss career passing yards list into seventh-place all-time.
And in the place of injured senior Jeff Scott, sophomore Jaylen Walton rushed 18 times for a career-high 105 yards and a career-high two touchdowns.
"We lined up and we ran the football against a really good defense," Freeze said. "... I have great confidence in Jaylen and (I'Tavius Mathers). I see them every day and think they're very talented. Jaylen does some things in the zone game that are pretty special. He has a little hesitation move and quick acceleration. He did really well tonight and protected the football."
In the win-loss column, Ole Miss improves to 4-3 and 2-3 in Southeastern Conference games with a home game against Idaho next week, a bye week, then a final four-game stretch of the regular season, but Freeze also looked at the bigger picture.
"There are some really good recruits in that locker room and we had some really good ones here last weekend that see we're really close, and we could use a little help because we're not where we need to be depth-wise at certain spots," Freeze said. "My mind always goes to that.
"We didn't make plays the other night to win it at the end. And tonight, we did. We made the catch on third down. We made the kick. We made the pass breakup or interception. No question, it helps us in recruiting, which will help us ultimately get where we all want to go."