But the Rebels will have to play a lot better than they did against Vanderbilt Saturday night to keep it that way.
Ole Miss came out on the winning end of a 27-16 game, but in the process the Rebels committed 11 penalties for 119 yards, turned the ball over twice, converted only 3 of 13 third downs and struggled on special teams. A Carlos Davis muffed punt return, which was recovered by Vanderbilt, was negated by a poorly-called kick-catch interference penalty on the Commodores, while Gary Wunderlich had one of his three attempted field goals blocked.
Maybe Ole Miss’ uninspiring effort was the result of a post-Alabama hangover. Last week the Rebels took down the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa for just the second time in school history, a 43-37 last-minute win that catapulted the Rebels into the national title discussion.
“Last week’s game took a lot out of us,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “We got back to Oxford at 5 a.m. We had a lot of banged up kids that didn’t get to practice some during the week. All of that is something every other team has to go through. Did that have something to do with some of our play? I don’t know. I just know if that’s the case we’re going to have a long year. This is week three and we don’t have an open date until about 10 games in. We’re in for a grind.”
“From Alabama week to this week, I think the preparation wasn’t as good as it was,” senior linebacker C.J. Johnson said. “But then again, I thought Tuesday we had the best practice we’ve had all year. We’re up and down and up and down. If we don’t get that fixed, we’re going to get our train knocked off the tracks. We’ll get it fixed.”
Much of the Rebels’ struggles came on the offensive end, though there were some positives.
Ole Miss piled up 472 total yards, meaning the Rebels have eclipsed 400 yards in every game this season. Junior wide receiver Laquon Treadwell caught eight passes for a career-high 135 yards, while senior running back Jaylen Walton rushed 21 times for 133 yards and a touchdown, his third career 100-yard game.
However, junior quarterback Chad Kelly wasn’t quite himself. He threw his second and third interceptions, finishing the game 24 of 42 for 321 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve got to prepare better,” Kelly said. “They did some stuff that we were not prepared for. They showed it in a couple games last year, but they didn’t show it at all this year. But that’s what teams do - they scheme against you, they try to mix you up a little bit. We’ll come back. We’ve just got to move on and get ready for the next game. I take full responsibility for today’s game. But a win is a win. Just got to get better and get ready for Florida.”
“We just didn’t play real well, and I have to start with myself and look and say that I didn’t prepare them enough,” Freeze said. “If we really want to be elite, we’ve got to prepare like we’re an elite football team. We had an awful Wednesday. I thought we had an OK Tuesday. We need the leadership in the locker room to help us with that, for sure.”
Another explanation could potentially be found in the unfamiliar position Ole Miss finds itself in. In 2008, the last time Ole Miss traveled to the Swamp to face Florida, the Rebels were the underdog looking to upset a national championship contender in the Gators led by Tim Tebow.
Seven years later, the roles are reversed. Ole Miss takes on Florida at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN.
“Coach Freeze said it best in the locker room after the game,” Johnson said. “Welcome to the hunted. We’re the hunted. People are going to hunt us. This is what we have to get used to. The challenge for us is to come back (Sunday), figure out the mistakes and starting Tuesday, we have to execute and be better in preparation.”
“We’re getting everybody’s best, no matter who it is,” senior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. “No matter the opponent, anybody that’s getting a chance to play us is going to play their absolute best. It’s definitely something that’s new around here. It’s usually the other way around. It’s something we’ve got to get used to.”
Vanderbilt was the first game for Ole Miss without standout defensive back Tony Conner.
The results were mixed.
Sophomore A.J. Moore started in place of Conner, who is out at least four weeks following surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee. Moore finished with four total tackles, while Ole Miss gave up 322 yards and 10 conversions on 22 third-down attempts.
“I’m just so used to his energy and hearing his presence on the field,” said Nkemdiche, who led the team with a career-high 14 tackles, including a career-high 12 solo. “I try not to let it mess with my mind. A.J. did a great job, but I definitely was missing Tony.”
“Struggled some,” Freeze said. “Had a few underneath routes that they’ve got to be sitting there for. Should’ve been five-yard gains, instead they’re 12-yard gains. I need to watch the film and see, but there was a few times where we probably could’ve played our technique a little better at that spot.”
True freshman Zedrick Woods also saw some time at Conner’s hybrid linebacker/safety “husky” position. Veterans Chief Brown and C.J. Hampton could be options in the future. Brown played only special teams in the win, while Hampton served as the backup for Trae Elston and Mike Hilton as free and strong safety, respectively.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Conner is a two-time All-American and All-SEC selection. He’s widely considered a top-round NFL talent for the 2016 draft, having totaled 135 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 14.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 passes defended and 2.0 interceptions in his Ole Miss career.
“Tony brings a lot of energy to us,” Johnson sad. “He’s actually a lot more vocal than you think out on the field. He’s a guy who you know is going to be in his spot. We talk about trust all week, trusting the guys next to you. Tony’s a guy who you just trust. When he goes into the game, he’s going to make plays.”
“We just got to keep getting better every day,” Nkemdiche said. “A.J. has to get better every day, and we’ve got to keep improving. When Tony comes back, we’ll be ready.”
No one will ever mistake Walton for LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
But that won’t stop Walton from trying.
Fournette ripped off 244 yards and two touchdowns in LSU’s 34-24 win over Syracuse, marking his fifth straight 100-yard game, and the eighth of his career. It was also the second straight 200-yard rushing performance for the sophomore Tiger, who has quickly emerged as an early frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.
Walton caught some of Fournette’s performance. And against Vanderbilt, the 5-foot-8, 172-pound Walton attempted to pull off his best impression of the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette. He amassed a career-high 215 all-purpose yards, leapfrogging Brandon Bolden and Jeff Scott into third place in the Ole Miss record book with 3,828 career all-purpose yards.
“I always harp on, with me being my size, be someone today,” Walton said. “I watched Leonard Fournette and the way he ran, so today I was going to see if I could do the same stuff. I’m not comparing myself to Fournette, but just my mentality to just run the ball really hard. I’m probably 100 pounds less for sure, but his mentality is to run the ball hard, and my mentality is to run the ball hard, too, so I just wanted to try and put my team on my back and get a W.”
Sophomore wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow caught four passes for 71 yards, including his first touchdown as a Rebel Saturday night. “I think String is one of those unheralded guys that’s really good,” Freeze said. “He’s a big threat for us, and we’ve all known that, those of us who’ve seen him practice all the time. It’s good to see it start happening on the game field. Really talented kid.” … Sophomore wide receiver Markell Pack caught a career-high six balls for 52 yards. … Ole Miss is 4-0 for the second straight year. … Ole Miss is now 22-4 under Freeze when it leads at halftime, including a 4-0 mark this season. … Attendance at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium was a sell-out crowd of 60,654.