But the loss didn’t surprise senior Rebel defensive end John Youngblood.
“We just completely overlooked it,” he said.
Youngblood sensed trouble early in the first quarter. The mood on the Ole Miss sideline quickly shifted after the Rebels jumped out to a two-touchdown lead. Players retreated to the bench and began cracking jokes, assuming not just a win, but a blowout win, over what they viewed as an inferior opponent.
“I knew it was going to be a long game after that,” Youngblood said.
Final: Memphis 37, Ole Miss 24.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who went on to become a first-round NFL Draft pick of the Denver Broncos, threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers, in all, totaled 481 offensive yards, and they turned Ole Miss over twice.
Evan Engram remembers the sting. The Rebels ultimately ended up in the Sugar Bowl and finished with a 10-3 record. But they might have never gotten there without the loss to Memphis. It was a wake-up call, according to the senior tight end.
“Any time you lose a game there’s a lot of self-reflection and looking back at what we could have done different or better,” Engram said. “But it was just kind of reality hitting and we had to start from scratch, look ourselves in the mirror and address the things we had to address. That was a turning point for us last year honestly. Nobody has stopped our offense since that game. We’ve been a great team all around since that game. So that was definitely kind of a kick in the butt as far as getting us on the right track.”
“Any time we play Memphis there's a little rivalry,” quarterback Chad Kelly, who completed 33 of 47 for 372 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the loss, said. “It goes back a long time ago. It's big for us players, this university. Going back to last year, we had a good lead to start the game off, we just kind of let off the gas pedal a little bit. We've got to make sure we keep on rolling with this offense and keep going fast.”
Almost a year later, Ole Miss is ranked No. 16 in the country following a 45-14 blowout win over Georgia to move to 2-2 on the year. Memphis is 3-0 under first-year head coach Mike Norvell. The Tigers lead the AAC in scoring offense and scoring defense.
And the Rebels won’t be overlooking them this time around.
“We started talking about Memphis literally the last seconds of the (Georgia) game,” Engram said. “Of how we need to attack this week, celebrate that Saturday with a great win against Georgia. But once Sunday hit it was time to get to work, fix mistakes, get the plan in place and start getting ready mentally and physically for the battle that’s going to be this week.
“I know their offense can score a lot of points. Their defense has great athletes and they move around really well. They move a lot pre-snap and throw a whole bunch of different types of looks. I was just watching some film, and I honestly couldn’t really get a bead on some of the stuff and the things they feel comfortable with. So they do a lot of moving around and they’re a really explosive team.”
Head coach Hugh Freeze isn’t big on ‘revenge’ games. But he knows the importance of Memphis, which carries significant regional weight.
Saturday will be the 62nd meeting all-time between Ole Miss and Memphis — the most-frequent rivalry for Ole Miss with any school not currently or formerly in the SEC. The Rebels hold a 48-11-2 leads and had won six straight before last year.
“I am about preparing as good as we can prepare to play a very good Memphis team, and I know that the game means a lot to our fan base and their fan base,” Freeze said. “So some emotion comes with that, hopefully for our kids, too. We won’t get into talking about we’ve got to do this because of last year; I am not a big fan of that. Hopefully our kids will understand it is an important game and is one that should have our full attention, for sure.”
“(Last year’s game) is a day I really don’t want to remember,” Engram said. “There was a lot of hype going into the week and I was like, wow, this might get ugly quick. But they definitely turned the tables really fast. We had our heads spinning a little, but that’s in the past and we’re ready to fix that this weekend.”