Finish or Be Finished

A win is a win is a win. However, not all wins are of the season-building variety. Take Saturday, for instance.

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Ole Miss beat Southern Illinois 42-24. A lopsided game for the most part. The outcome was never really in doubt. The Rebels dominated early and coasted the rest of the way, though the scoreboard should have been far more lopsided. As in, 63-3 bad. Or at least 40 something points to just over zero bad.

But, again, Ole Miss allowed a much lesser opponent to hang in and make a game of it. Southern Illinois was not a good team. Far from it, actually. Yet an Ole Miss defense that shined in a season-opening loss to BYU was gashed by the Salukis, surrendering over 400 yards of offense, including 223 on the ground.

Before any of you deem me negative or a nit-picker, keep in mind this is the same team fresh off a 4-8 season, one that included a 1-7 mark in Southeastern Conference games. Yes, the Rebels are all of two games into the 2011 season. There are 10 more of these games to play.

Still, old habits are hard to break. Like, say, disaster plays surrendered defensively. (A 74-yard run by SIU running back Steve Strother when Ole Miss had the Salukis pinned at their own 6-yard line; a 57-yard first-down pass and catch when SIU faced a third-and-long.)

What about inconsistency in the running game? Ole Miss is averaging 3.2 yards per carry after two games. Or the spotty tackling? Or a glorified game of musical chairs at quarterback, a la Nathan Stanley and Jeremiah Masoli at the beginning of last season?

The worst habit, however, is allowing a team such as Southern Illinois to even be in the game to begin with. Ole Miss, if you remember, lost to Jacksonville State to open its season a year ago. Saturday was eerily familiar. You know, like the Hangover II. No creativity. Just take the same premise, change the teams and reboot the franchise. Only difference was the ending.

The Rebels led 28-10 at halftime. Against Jacksonville State, they led 31-10. Yet, in both games, they were beaten in the second half. Jacksonville State erased the deficit and ultimately won in double overtime. SIU pulled as close as 35-24. Thankfully Saluki quarterback Paul McIntosh lollipopped a throw that was intercepted by Damien Jackson.

Kentrell Lockett
Chuck Rounsaville

Because SIU, down 11, was driving deep in Ole Miss territory, having just forced a turnover of Ole Miss quarterback Zack Stoudt.

"We just got to learn how to finish," senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said postgame. "We appreciate the W, we're thankful for the W. They're hard to come by. But we know this game could have been over a long time ago.

"We gave them confidence, we let them get back in, we let them move the ball when they didn't need to. We just got to learn from it and learn how to finish the game as a team."

Finishing games is a mindset; something good teams know how to do. Good teams, bowl-worthy teams, don't let up. No, a good team keeps its foot on the throttle and buries its opponent when the opportunity is there.

In the early stages of the 2008 season, the first under Houston Nutt, Ole Miss had no clue how to finish games. That is, until the Rebels beat Florida in the Swamp. They had let other games slip away, games in which they led late. Wake Forest. Vanderbilt. It wasn't until Lockett blocked an extra point and Marcus Temple -- a senior captain three years later -- stuffed Tim Tebow on fourth down that Ole Miss put a full game together.

Even then, Ole Miss lost to South Carolina a week later. Another game it should have won. Another game where a lead was blown. Another game where finishing was the problem, disaster plays were a problem, collective heads sulking due to a defeatist mindset was a problem.

It took a nail-biting, hang-on-to-your-chair win at Arkansas for Ole Miss to truly learn how to finish, to erase the seed of doubt, to gain the borderline cocky attitude of knowing it would win. The Rebels finally realized how to seal a victory no matter the circumstances surrounding the final two quarters.

The win at Arkansas was the first of six straight victories to end that season. Two games later, Ole Miss jumped ahead of LSU, ranked No. 18 at season's end, and never let up. Then came Mississippi State, which ended in a 45-0 blowout. Not only had the Rebels figured out how to finish, but they understood that lesser teams, scared-of-its-shadow teams, have to be buried. Confidence can be a tricky thing.

Three years later, Ole Miss is back to the pre-Arkansas win days. BYU was the first test, one Ole Miss failed in every conceivable way. The Rebels led 13-0 heading into the fourth quarter, only to lose 14-13. That can't happen. Not in SEC play. Not when Ole Miss is desperately chasing a bowl bid in two months.

"We got out there, we're hyped up or whatever, we put up points. But after halftime, it's just we kind of start getting into our relaxing mode," sophomore running back Jeff Scott, who had four touchdowns and 210 all-purpose yards against SIU, said.

Jeff Scott
Chuck Rounsaville

"That's something we're going to have to work on in practice. Eventually, we'll get over that slump or whatever, and start finishing out games. I mean, we could have blew (Southern Illinois) out. That's just something we've got to work on."

Ole Miss can only win this season when it learns how to finish games, when it rediscovers that killer instinct when it smells blood. Corny, I know. But appropriate, if you think about it.

A team that entered the season hoping to win got its first win Saturday night. But it wasn't pretty. Or dominant. And it should have been, and that's the rub as Ole Miss preps for a conference-opening tilt with Vanderbilt -- long the thorn in Ole Miss' side -- this weekend.

Give credit where it's due. Ole Miss orchestrated a seven-play, 64-yard drive to put the game away, capped by Devin Thomas' three-yard touchdown run. The Rebels ran the same play seven times. Really, they did. Bradley Sowell's idea, to an extent. He scolded the offensive line, which struggled again, on the sidelines before the drive.

"I'm glad we did finish, ‘cause the guys got to feel what it's like to finish a win," Sowell said. "But, you know, sometimes you get that feeling of ‘Oh no, here we go again.' Today, we did a good job of doing what we do best. Let's line up and run the football at the end of the game. That's why I was really animated over there. I was telling the guys ‘Look, let's do what we do. Let's stop BSing around.' We lined up and ran the same play seven or eight times."

Sure, a win is a win is a win. But if Ole Miss is to win more games than it loses this season, it has to finish. Stop BSing around, as Sowell so aptly said. No remembering in November. More like remembering how to finish it out in the final two quarters.

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