OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi's four-game winning streak is history along with its short stay in the national rankings.
The Rebels (7-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) didn't play very well in a 24-10 loss to No. 8 Missouri on Saturday — especially struggling in the red zone — and now must regroup for a road game against rival Mississippi State (5-6, 2-5) on Thursday night.
It might be the most crucial game of Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze's two-year tenure.
The Rebels have been trending upward since he arrived, making a bowl game last season after a 2-10 record in 2011. But a loss to the rival Bulldogs would be a blow to his reclamation project.
Winning in Starkville won't be easy. The home team has won eight of the past nine Egg Bowls.
There's little doubt Mississippi State will be highly motivated, and not just because it's the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs must win the game to earn bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season.
Freeze and the Rebels had a 5-6 record last season before the rivalry game and beat Mississippi State 41-24.
"The Egg Bowl intensity is always about as high as you can get," Freeze said. "But certainly with them having to win to go to a bowl, like we were last year, if it's possible to ratchet it up more, that would do it."
But it's not all mind games for the Rebels. They must also play better football, especially in the red zone.
Ole Miss made three trips to the red zone in last weekend's loss to Missouri but managed only three combined points from those drives. Penalties, dropped passes and the lack of a power running game were all partially to blame.
"There were some opportunities to have some really nice plays, and we didn't get it done," Freeze said. "There are three or four that stand out in our mind — they're our fault. And then you've got to give (Missouri) some credit."
Mississippi State beat Arkansas 24-17 in overtime Saturday but might be down to its third-string quarterback on Thursday.
Bulldogs' coach Dan Mullen said on Monday that starter Dak Prescott will miss his third consecutive game because of a nerve injury in his nonthrowing arm. Backup Tyler Russell played for most of the Arkansas game but had to leave in the fourth quarter with an injured throwing shoulder.
Mullen said Russell's status will continually be evaluated this week, but if he can't play, the assignment falls to true freshman Damian Williams.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Williams hasn't played much this season but scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard run against the Razorbacks in overtime.
Freeze said Mississippi State's offense is fairly consistent no matter who is under center. He sounded more concerned about Mississippi State's defense — which held top-ranked Alabama to a season-low 20 points two weeks ago.
"The windows to throw in, they don't stay open long," Freeze said. "It's an excellent defense, and over the past few games they've improved."