Early last week, a happenstance bump into Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze resulted in a brief, but poignant conversation.
Me: Hugh, what about the defense, man? It seems like they have lost their mojo, their stinger.
Freeze: We badly need something good to happen to us early in the A&M game. We have lost our confidence, but we had an airing out meeting Sunday and I feel better about things.
There was no way to know what that meant because "better" than the Memphis effort would not have been a very big deal. 30 missed tackles, lousy third down production, very little QB pressure and "nervous" looking coverage, after all, would not be hard to improve on.
Regardless, he was confident all Rebel fans would see improvement.
But even he did not imagine the improvement that was witnessed in the manhandling of the Aggies. It was almost as surprising as how easily the Rebel offense, also needing a boost in the run game, ran the ball on this night to the tune of 230 yards on 52 totes.
After all, this was the 15th-ranked Aggies with quality, dynamic skill players all over the field on offense and this was a Rebel defense that had been scorched by the Gators and the Tigers in recent weeks.
So what happened? Why did, on this night, the Rebel defense return to the form that was anticipated when the season began? Why did the Landsharks get their bite back?
One could rightly assume the return of defensive leader C.J. Johnson, who recovered a fumble in the game, gave the Rebels a boost. Freeze definitely intimated that in his post game presser. This defense does not have a lot of natural leaders on it. C.J. is one of them and his absence has been felt,but Freeze also said Mike Hilton and Trae Elston stepped it up this week in the leadership department as well.
One could justify a week of heavy hitting and working on tackling would help the Rebels improve in that department, which they certainly did. While a few tackles were missed, they were rare and more because of A&M skill than the Rebs' lack of same. Even the secondary, maligned a week ago, seemed to be honed in and effective in bringing ballcarriers down on this night.
One could easily say more press coverage and the early success with such gave the DBs confidence as the game progressed. DC Dave Wommack was looking for something to make those guys feel better about themselves and took a chance with more press coverage calls. The challenge worked - the DBs responded.
One could give credit to a sellout crowd who was with the team from start to finish. The bearing an enthusiastic home crowd, which this one certainly was, has on a team is invaluable.
One could see the passion we have become accustomed to, but that has been missing in a couple of games. This has ben a hallmark of Hugh's teams and to see passion missing in a couple of games this year was perhaps as shocking as the poor results.
One could tip the hat to the coaching staff for a fantastic plan and having the guys ready to execute said plan. See the coordinator story for more on that little tidbit, but suffice it here to say the plan on both sides of the ball was very, very effective.
All of that would have merit .All of that contributed to the fine defensive performance. All of that meant something to the effort.
But from this cheap seat, this one was about pride.
You don't rise to this level of competition, with the blood, sweat and tears invested to get here, with a short supply of pride. This team got schooled a couple of times this year, but not because the competition was better, but because the competition played, coached and executed with more passion and with more enthusiasm and with more pride.
In short, they were embarrassed and their backs were against the wall.
That is when pride surfaces and it surfaced against the Aggies, in spades.
This game was exactly what the Rebels needed, from start to finish and all points in between. They beat Texas A&M in every phase of the game, from the sidelines to the back of each end zone.
The Rebels showed their passion. The Rebels regained thier confidence. The Rebels exhibited pride.
Forget everything else. That's why they won.
And while the offense and special teams certainly did their parts, the Landshark defense we all love returned, attacked and conquered.