It wasn't pretty, at least until the fourth quarter.
Though the scoreboard flashed 45-14 as time expired, what appeared an Ole Miss blowout wasn't the case in the Bluff City Sunday, as the Rebels held a slim 10-point advantage early in the final frame.
But like good teams do, a game closer than it should've been was made into a laugher. Twenty-one points over the course of six minutes buried the Tigers, with Ole Miss leaving Liberty Bowl Stadium with the projected romp many had hoped for.
"I thought the last two quarters, our offense finally came on. You have to give Memphis credit. I think they're much better," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "But our defense was outstanding today. We missed some tackles that we normally don't miss, but kept them wrapped up, pressured the quarterback and kept them off-balance. We were able to roll some guys and keep them fresh. That helped us."
What a difference a year makes.
Entering the day with an Associated Press No. 8 ranking, Ole Miss took the field as the darlings of college football. As the only game broadcast on national television Sunday, a microscope of hype was placed on the Rebels matchup with Memphis as the barometer to which this team would be judged for later dates.
However, the script wouldn't read for a game dominated by Ole Miss throughout. For three quarters, the team found itself in a tightly-contested slugfest, with Memphis hanging tough before a talented Rebel squad wore them down.
Only two years ago, fans of the Red and Blue cheered vigorously for a nail-biting 23-21 victory over these same Tigers in the land of Elvis. But with hype comes increased expectations and for some, the Rebels didn't do enough to satisfy.
"We started out OK, but then we lulled," said senior wide receiver Dexter McCluster. "At halftime, we talked about how we knew that wasn't us - that wasn't Ole Miss football. We came out in the second half and did something about it. We were never really worried about the game, as far as losing it, but we wanted to play better."
In fairness, season openers are usually mistake-prone and sloppy. It was predictable to see missed assignments and tackles considering the last game action came in April in the team's annual spring game.
The Ole Miss offensive line was breaking in three new starters, with Bradley Sowell and Brandon Green having their ups-and-downs over the game's duration. Sophomore Brandon Bolden and senior Gerald Harris were both limited a bit with ailing hamstring injuries suffered in fall camp.
So it should come as no surprise the offense suffered early. Maybe the more curious of concerns was how long it took for quarterback Jevan Snead and company to find a rhythm.
"I forced things again, things I didn't have to force, but at least now I can recognize it and correct as I go," said Snead, after totaling a meager line of 12-for-22 with two touchdowns matched by two interceptions.
"I did much better in the second half. We were kind of kicking ourselves in the locker room at halftime, but we didn't panic. We knew we could do a lot better and we were determined to step up in the second half. In the second half, we all played better."
Some will look to Sunday as only a disappointment. However, in the grand scheme, record books will forever show a lopsided win in a highly-anticipated 2009 season.
To put it simply, picking apart a 31-point win allows one to breathe a little easier compared to a four-point cliffhanger in season's mired with losing. For the Rebels, these days are still uncharted waters. Yet, with the decision in question, they showed their resolve and responded accordingly.
"They were better than I anticipated," junior strong safety Johnny Brown, who had 15 tackles on the day, said of Memphis. "Their backs were shifty and did a nice job. They played us hard the whole way. They were a good test for us, but we righted the ship and showed what we can do."
To me, yesterday's matinee was merely a microcosm of this team's identity.
Returning 14-of-22 starters from a year ago, these Rebels only get better in time, making the most of difficult circumstances and when doubt arises.
Whether admitted or not, a team who struggled mightily (at least offensively) for three quarters still found a way to walk away with a convincing win in hand.
It's as if they had pulled off six-straight wins to end a season or something.
"We're solid. We're a team. We're going to fight when times get rough. Everybody gets mad, but nobody gets down. Everybody fights and pushes through it," junior free safety Fon Ingram said. "We stay together. Everybody has their good spirit going. We've just got to keep our composure and go out there and have fun. When you do that, good things happen."
Like a 31-point "disappointing" win.
Up for Interpretation
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