Ole Miss is in Austin, Texas, for its meeting with the Longhorns on Saturday at 7 p.m. We take a look at what to watch for in the Rebels' quest for their first 3-0 start since 1989.
Sophomore running back Jaylen Walton meets the media to preview Ole Miss - Texas.
The adjectives change by the player, but they're not all that different.
Embarrassing. Disappointing. Ugly. But a few of the words used this week to describe last season's game against Texas.
The Longhorns marched into a Vaught-Hemingway Stadium packed to capacity and hung 66 points on Ole Miss in a blowout win. A once-confident bunch was humbled in front of the raucous crowd, the Rebels showing their age on a national stage.
A game the Rebels haven't forgotten.
"It was quite embarrassing, to be honest," junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said. "They pretty much came in there and beat us like a drum."
A year has passed, however, and much has changed for both teams. Ole Miss ultimately reached the postseason for the first time in three seasons despite the loss, and the Rebels signed a consensus top-10 recruiting class in February, headlined by five-star signees Robert Nkemdiche, Antonio Conner, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, all of which have played key roles through two games.
USA TODAY images
"I do think we're deeper at a few spots, and mentally, we are further along," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said earlier this week. "I feel confident that we're better prepared. Does that mean that results will follow? I don't know. But I'm confident we're better prepared mentally and physically."
The Rebels enter the game ranked No. 25 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls, while Texas finds itself unranked following a 40-21 loss to BYU. The hot seat gets warmer by the day for head coach Mack Brown, who fired his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, this week and replaced him with old friend Greg Robinson in a season already off to a disappointing 1-1 start.
"When Greg was here, we played really hard on defense, we were sound and we tackled well. He brings a lot of energy to the table," Brown said this week. "The other thing is that we hired him in July, so he is in tune with our personnel. He has watched our practices since we hired him as a self-evaluator. He's studied a lot of the things we did last year and he has some game plan thoughts on the next opponent. He's a natural fit to step in."
Even more troubling for the Longhorns, quarterback David Ash is questionable for the game due to injury, while Brown is fielding weekly questions about his job security. Suffice to say, a cloud of uncertainty hangs overhead the tradition-rich Longhorns.
"I just want to beat Ole Miss this weekend," Brown said, when asked if he still considers himself the best person to continue to lead Texas football.
My, how the tables have turned.
Ole Miss Player to Watch:
BYU rushed for 550 yards in a 40-21 win over Texas last weekend. Five. Hundred. And. Fifty. So Jeff Scott is the obvious choice for Ole Miss player to watch, right? Wrong. And here's why.
If we learned anything from the snooze-fest of a win over Southeast Missouri it was that Ole Miss' hopes for a successful season rests on the repaired shoulder of the turnover-free, at least so far, quarterback. As has been proven over and over, Barry Brunetti is no more than a situational player. When pressed into regular action, he is rendered ineffective. Why? Well, because he can't throw the ball with any touch. At all. Brunetti has completed three of his 12 passes on the year. Three. He's a senior, folks. He is what he is - a stellar runner, who ranks second on the team with 115 yards on 20 carries, which are tied with, surprisingly, Wallace for the team lead.
Behind Brunetti is a pair of talented freshmen in Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Kincade would almost certainly get the nod if, God forbid, anything were to happen to Wallace. But relying on a true freshman is hardly ever ideal, and Ole Miss has loftier goals than its seven wins from a year ago. A bowl equivalent to the Compass Bowl would a disappointment, too, considering the expectations and momentum and blah, blah, blah. You get my point.
Wallace matters. If you polled 100 Ole Miss fans asking them to rank the roster from No. 1 to, I don't know, 75, in order of importance, I'd venture to say 90 out of 100 would place Wallace at the top. And one more thing: With Wallace at quarterback, Ole Miss raced out to a 31-0 lead on SEMO in a quarter and a half. Without him, nada. Zip. While a small sample size, I grant you, it's not a coincidence.
Last Game: ATT: 8 / COMP: 15 / YDS: 188 / TDs: 2 / RATT: 2 / YDS: 15 / TDs 0
Texas Player to Watch:
Will he or won't he?
Texas quarterback David Ash is questionable for Saturday's game and a decision on whether he can play may not come until long before kickoff, according to a recent report by the Associated Press. Ash, who accounted for five touchdowns in a win over New Mexico State to open the season, left the field in the loss to BYU with head and shoulder injuries.
Longhorn head coach Mack Brown said Wednesday if Ash is unable to pay, senior Case McCoy would get the start.
"The guys trust Case," Brown said. "There won't be panic if David's not out there."
Maybe not. But there should be.
The dropoff from Ash to McCoy is significant. Through his first two games, he passed for 594 yards. He's the team's leading rusher with 125 yards, and his passing efficiency rating of 168.9 is 27th in the nation. Delving further into the numbers, Ash is 20th in the nation in passing yards per game (297.0) and 11th in total offense (359.5) with six touchdowns to two interceptions.
Oh, and did I mention he threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns on 19 of 24 passing against Ole Miss last season en route to a 66-31 win? That, too. The Longhorns piled up 676 yards against the Rebels in Oxford. Oy.
McCoy has appeared in 21 games in his career, with six starts. He isn't a good passer. Here's a nice stat from ESPN: McCoy has been asked to throw 15 or more passes in a game only seven times in his career. McCoy had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8-7 in those games.
Ash is the engine that drives the car for Texas, like Wallace for Ole Miss. This game could very well be a shootout. If Ash is under center, I expect it to be. McCoy, not so much.
Last Game: ATT: 19 / COMP: 34 / YDS: 251 / TDs: 2 / RATT: 16 / YDS: 34 / TDs 0
- Chuck Rounsaville, Publisher
1. Texas scored 66 points and ran up 676 total yards on the Rebels last year. What can the Rebels do to prevent a repeat?
Last year, Ole Miss was just two games – both creampuffs – into Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack's system. As it turned out, they didn't know squat and proceeded to have 53 – count ‘em – assignment busts, enough for a whole season, in what Wommack called "the worst experience of my coaching career." It seemed the Longhorns took advantage of every single mistake the Rebs made. A year later, the Rebel defense is much further along in the system and much more comfortable in their shoes, so to speak. Assignment busts should not be a major issue. Sure, there will be some, there always are, but expect a "cleaner" game by the Rebel defense this weekend. Also, while coaches and players always use the one-game-at-a-time line, embarrassment on your home turf is a bitter pill to swallow. The Rebs will be looking for some redemption this time around.
2. How will changing defensive coordinators mid-stream affect the Texas defense? After BYU lit the Longhorns up last weekend, Coach Mack Brown fired Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz and replaced him with Greg Robinson, who has worked for Brown before and coordinated for Maryland and Michigan in the past.
There are too many variables in this equation to come up with a reasonable prediction. Did the Texas players dislike Diaz? Do they like Robinson better? How much Will Robinson try to change? If wholesale changes are attempted, can they grasp it all? How much pride does the Texas squad have after the BYU dismantled them? We only feel comfortable answering one – the pride factor. In 35 years of covering college football, I've found the most dangerous teams – besides the ones just loaded to the brim with talent – are the wounded ones.
USA TODAY images
One has to look back at our own Rebs to last year to see that. They lost six games, but every time they were wounded and appeared to be done, they rebounded with even more fire and passion the next time out. Texas has the pick of the litter of great athletes in that state, and beyond. Players don't become great without the will to win and the temperament to get off the mat after being knocked down. From an attitudinal and effort standpoint, it will be shocking to this hack if the Rebels don't get the Longhorns' best emotional shot.
3. How does the change in Texas' defensive coordinator affect Hugh Freeze's offensive staff?
Freeze was blunt in his Monday press conference that there are concerns due to the unknowns. In the end, he said the Rebels will have to be themselves and not make the mistake of overthinking the situation. Sure, he conceded, they'll have to be ready for what both Diaz and Robinson have done in the past, but they have to be careful not to paralyze the players with too much information.
In the end, Freeze said, it's more about what they anticipate Texas to do on third downs and in the Red Zone, the critical times in the game, than the whole Longhorn plan. The Rebel offensive staff will be walking a tight wire – how much information to give the players without overloading and confusing them. It will be an interesting chess match.
4. What is the key for Ole Miss' defense?
The same as most every week – stop the run. Last year, Texas bulldozed the Rebs, rushing for 350 yards. They were, it seemed, gaining big yardage at will. When their run game got going to that extent, the passing game was basically wide open. The Longhorns will have balance in their attack, there's no way around that. Even in their loss to BYU, they had 82 offensive plays and gained a lot of yards, but BYU stiffened in the Red Zone and on third downs. That will be huge for the Rebels as well. How they perform at those critical times may well tell the tale of the game.
5. What is the key for the Rebel offense?
Move the chains, keep the pressure on. Tempo. Produce on first and second downs to have manageable third downs. Same story, different chapter. Rebel QB Bo Wallace said he was "overwhelmed" last year when he lined up against Texas. He won't be a deer in headlights this year. That was his first "big game" and he has played, and performed admirably, in several since. Instead of being shell-shocked like last year, he will be itching to go Saturday and, let's face it, his play will be critical to the Rebs' success or failure. Of course, as always, the Rebel offensive line will have to neutralize the Texas DL, but based on what was seen against BYU, that can be accomplished with good technique and assignment football.
Obviously, and certainly, there are more questions as this opportunity approaches for the Rebels, but these burn.
Junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief meets the media to preview Ole Miss - Texas.
- Ole Miss Spirit staff
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, on motivation for Texas:
"They beat us by 30 points last year. They have better talent than us, or more depth at least. We think we're talented. Our confidence is up. We know we have playmakers, and have guys that are going to get up and go get the ball for me. So we're very confident."
On how better equipped the team is to face Texas compared to last season:
"Way more prepared. I've been in big games, I've played against great athletes like the ones we're going to go play against. And to be able to play it down there, where Texas football is huge and it's going to be loud. That's the kind of environment I like to play in, and a lot of our guys strive off that."
Junior linebacker Serderius Bryant, on the importance of the game:
"To tell you the truth, this is like our Mississippi State this year. The way they came onto the field, and the way they put it on us, we feel we've got to get revenge. We've got to be the one with the chip on our shoulders. We want to be the team that has a bigger chip on our shoulders and go out there and compete."
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, on practice prep for Ash, who is questionable for the game:
USA TODAY images
"We have to approach it as if he's going to play. We have to prepare for him, then move to the second guy and then the third guy. Their third guy is more of a threat to run and we'll have to have a package prepared for that if Ash doesn't play because they might get to him in their rotation. But there's only so much you can prepare for in four days. We have to be careful not to overload our guys with too many what-ifs."
On the embarrassment of last season's blowout loss:
"It was so disappointing. It was almost a perfect storm. We were 2-0 but we weren't very good yet. Our guys were probably thinking they were a little better than they were. They wanted to take it to an SEC team. We weren't sharp at all.
The good thing is that game changed our season. We were all embarrassed. We all watched it together afterwards and the players could see if they did what we told them to do we could play good defense. We shut out Tulane the next week and then went to Alabama and played, overall, good defense against the number one team in America. That Texas game was hard to take, hard to swallow, but it made a difference for us last year."
Senior lineman Pierce Burton, on his memory of the 66-31 loss:
"That was my worst game. I probably played my worst game in that game out of the entire season. First time I really played a good opponent. And (Alex) Okafor, now he's playing in the NFL, so obviously he's pretty darn good. I think we're a lot better prepared and know what to expect."
- Ben Garrett, Staff Writer
Yes, Sophomore Mike Hilton wasn't moved from HUSKY to cornerback until last week. But cornerback isn't completely foreign to him.
Hilton, a former three-star prospect, was primarily a cornerback for Sandy Creek High School in Fayetteville, Ga., where he helped lead his team to a 12-1 record as a senior. And in his true freshman season at Ole Miss, he appeared in 12 games, with five starts at HUSKY and cornerback.
Moving Hilton was a logical quick-fix for an Ole Miss defense short of both quality and experience at cornerback. Senior Charles Sawyer, who started all 23 games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, won't travel with the team to Texas due to discipline from his arrest on suspicion of DUI Sunday. Even still, his status was in doubt before the events of this week. Sawyer has been dealing with myriad of injuries. He played only sparingly in the Rebels' season-opening win at Vanderbilt, and was rested during the Rebels' 31-13 win Saturday over Southeast Missouri.
Junior Senquez Golson will start opposite Hilton. But he, too, is banged up. The remaining candidates include sophomores Q Burdette and Anthony Standifer and true freshman Bobby Hill, but little else.
Freeze said at his weekly press conference on Monday the staff will try some different things at the position during the bye week. However, Hilton is out to prove he's the man for the job. He currently ranks third on the team in tackles with nine, and his two tackles for loss are tied for second.