Hometown Challenge

College football games continue today across the country. But for Ole Miss it’s a day off.

The 3-0 Rebels, ranked No. 10 in the latest Associated Press poll, host Memphis next Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Today they watch and wait as others play, including Memphis, which hosts Middle Tennessee State at 6 p.m.

The small snapshot of the Tigers that’s out there for the 2014 season has them much improved. A struggling program lately is apparently beginning to turn a corner under third-year head coach Justin Fuentes, who was 7-17 his first two seasons at the U of M.

This season Memphis opened with a 63-0 win against Austin Peay State at home, and followed that up with a competitive 42-35 loss at a ranked UCLA team two weeks ago. Last weekend Memphis had an open date.

One Ole Miss player who has watched the goings-on with the Tigers this season is Memphis product Jaylen Walton, the junior running back who prepped at Ridgeway High School in the bluff city.

Walton figures he understands what Memphis did the week prior during its open date. It’s what the Rebels did this week.

“It’s been pretty much a regular week for us,” said Walton, a 5-foot-8, 166-pound junior running back.

Except for some time off for the Rebels, including this weekend, basically a break for the first time in a month and a half.

During those opening three games, Ole Miss has been offensively productive in wins over Boise State (35-13), Vanderbilt (41-3), and Louisiana-Lafayette (56-15). But the running game has been a bit of a struggle to get going as they need it to be.

So far it hasn’t been bad as far as averages go. The Rebels are averaging 155 yards per game on the ground yet only 3.9 yards per rush. Some of the ground-gainers have been of the large chunk variety, like Walton’s 71-yard run for a touchdown against ULL and teammate I’Tavius Mathers’ 56-yard run for a touchdown in the same game.

The run game for the Rebels has been the proverbial work in progress. But the backfield has talented runners to help get the job done, including Walton.

“The running game is not where we want it to be, but we’re working at it,” Walton said. “We all challenge each other to run the football. You’ve got to run the football in this league. So we’re just trying to be accountable and trying to run the football a little bit more.”

Walton said the Rebels believe they are getting better in the running game.

“I think patience with us and the offense as a whole is key," he said. "We run so many formations and so many schemes, we’ve just got to be more focused in on the running.”

Since the season opener against Boise State, the Rebel rushing attack apparently has improved. That night the ground game only produced 71 yards on 34 carries, an average of 2.1 yards a rush. But it's picked up since then.

“We have holes and we have good running backs,” Walton said. “I still think it goes back to patience running the football. We’ve got to fit the right gaps and just make the right reads and we’ll be fine.”

With a week between games to get things to an even better level, Walton is excited for next Saturday night’s game when his hometown team comes to Oxford.

“This one means more to me because it’s my hometown, it’s where I’m from,” he said. “I know 80 percent of the players on Memphis’ team. Like I am, most of them are from that area, too. It’s going to be a fun challenge.

“But we just want to treat it like a regular game. The most important thing is to come out with a win, no matter who the opponent is. We just want to go out and get another win.”

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