We've already established that the 73rd Annual Cotton Bowl Classic will likely be a shootout, but to say Ole Miss lacks the ability to slow down a high powered Texas Tech offense is selling a very strong Rebel defense short.
"The timing of their offense is tough," said head coach Houston Nutt. "You can watch them all year and see they know what they are doing. They execute to a high level and they can run the ball too. They have excellent weapons and they will be a tough chore for our DBs. It's a real tough assignment."
While slowing the Red Raider attack will surely be a tall task, the secondary will have the support of one of the best defensive lines in the Southeastern Conference.
Through dominant play by the front four, Ole Miss ranks fifth in the SEC in total defense (294.8) and second against the run (85.0).
In the final game of the regular season against instate rival Mississippi State, the unit posted a school-record 11 sacks and helped hold the Bulldogs to the fewest rushing yards by an opponent in school history with -51.
"It will be all 11, but it starts up front, like it does every week," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "We have to stuff the run and pressure the pass, just like every week. I don't know how much pressure we can get, but we are going to try a lot of things. We'll mix it up."
Texas Tech All-American guard Brandon Carter compares the defensive line of the Rebels to that of Oklahoma and Texas.
"They are a little like Texas and a little like Oklahoma. Both those teams have great defensive lines and so does Ole Miss," said Carter. "Ole Miss has a lot of speed, like Oklahoma, and good size, like Texas. I rank Ole Miss right there with those teams on the DL.
"Our biggest challenge is to play with our technique. Like I said earlier, if you lose your technique, they have guys who are good enough and fast enough to find it and expose you."
But getting the better of the Red Raiders may prove difficult. While pressuring quarterback Graham Harrell is certainly an area of emphasis, the Tech offensive line has yielded a mere 11 sacks in 12 games.
To apply pressure, the defensive ends will have to overcome wider offensive line splits employed by the Red Raiders, which means they have a little further to go to get to Harrell from the edges.
"We still have to play with good technique, stop the run and rush the passer," said defensive end Kentrell Lockett. "I'm sure they have a reason for doing what they do, but I don't look for it to hinder us in our pursuit of getting to the quarterback."
Through an unrelenting style of play implemented by defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, Ole Miss ranks first in the conference in sacks with 35.
But even if sack opportunities appear rare Friday, Lockett believes getting Harrell outside his comfort zone can be equally effective.
"Sacks are nice, but what we will be trying to do is getting him out of his element and his comfort zone," he explained. "We want to make him move, get him out of the pocket, get him out of his rhythm, make him do things he's not used to doing, hit him while he's throwing, get him thinking about the rush. Those kinds of things will be just as important as the sacks.
"The sacks are flamboyant and are big plays for losses, but the other things are just as important in doing our part to slow down their passing game. We want Harrell to have his mind on us coming after him rather than being able to pat he ball and scan the field until someone comes open. We want to get in his face."
Advantage: No breakdown thus far has seemed more even-matched than the Ole Miss front four against the Texas Tech offensive line. Both teams present strong fronts that are tops in their respective conferences. What makes the Red Raider offense so effective is the protection Harrell receives while observing the field. Only once this season (against the Sooners) was there enough pressure to force the senior to make quick decisions and release the football well before he wanted to. In the game Harrell finished with 361 yards and three touchdowns on 33-55 passing, but never seemed as in synch compared to earlier games this season.
So what does this tell us? Obviously the Rebel front must get pressure and get it often. As we've previously stated, the Tech offensive line is one of the best in the business, which makes the job that much harder. But the Red Raiders have yet to see a front as dominant as Ole Miss' this season. Call this matchup a draw.
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