With the disappointments of Columbia now in the rearview mirror, No. 21 Ole Miss looks to a showdown at Vanderbilt to get back to its winning ways.
Meeting the Commodores for the 84th time in a series dating back to 1894, the Rebels are in search of their first 3-1 start since 2002.
"It was good to get back on a regular routine," said head coach Houston Nutt Monday. "Sunday's always been a time to come back and watch film, put that to rest and get right back on the field. It was a good feeling to get back out there yesterday. I thought we had a very good practice. Good to see the sunshine and we got on Vanderbilt (preparations). I'm looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow."
Ole Miss' eight-game winning streak dating back to last season came to a screeching halt with a 16-10 loss to South Carolina, with the team now vying to split their first two conference games for the second straight year.
An Offense Out-of-Sync:
Three games into the 2009 season, one thing is abundantly clear: the Ole Miss offense is far from gaining a rhythm.
Though the Rebels are averaging 41.3 points per game over their last seven games dating back to last season, Thursday's 10-point effort snapped a school-record streak of four straight games with 45 or more points.
Further, the squad has endured lengthy stretches of anemic play in their previous outings against Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana, as junior quarterback Jevan Snead has proven the primary culprit of porous line play and alarming inconsistency.
"Obviously we didn't play well (against South Carolina)," said Snead. "We couldn't get anything going and couldn't string anything together. We had a lot of mistakes and a bunch of mental errors. It was just a tough game.
"I don't know really why the offense is out of rhythm right now. I guess we're just kind of slow starting off. If you remember, we started off kind of slow last year. I was hoping to get into a rhythm quicker this year. Unfortunately, we really haven't been able to."
While Snead hasn't thrown an interception in his last two games, the 6-foot-3, 220 pounder completed only 7-of-21 passes against the Gamecocks.
Worries of protection certainly played a role in Snead's 107-yard passing performance, but also an inability to get the ball in the hands of senior all-purpose gem Dexter McCluster for much of the night factored in as well.
McCluster totaled only one touch until the fourth quarter in Columbia, but finished with 85 yards rushing on 15 attempts in the game. However, the Largo, Fla. native failed to record a reception.
"We haven't been in a rhythm these past three games," McCluster said. "We know what we're capable of doing, but we haven't done that yet. But once we start clicking on all cylinders – the line is blocking everybody, the backs are blocking, the receivers are running good routes and Jevan starts getting it to us – we know we'll be a great offense.
"It's surprised us. The first game it took a while for us to get clicking, but we finally did at the end. It was hard to get clicking that second week. It's been kind of surprising. We haven't clicked yet, but I know when it comes, it's going to come at the right moment."
Offensive Line Intact:
Despite surrendering four sacks, two by way of USC career sack leader Eric Norwood Thursday, Nutt said there will be no depth chart changes along the offensive line.
"We try to put the best guys on the field," he said. "We feel like we have the best group out there. We've just got to get better. If you look at the film really hard and study it, if we just finish a block, take one more step, run through a block, a few more yards, a few more positive yards, first downs. So I think they saw that.
"We've got the right guys on the field. With A.J. Hawkins and Brandon Green, and those guys right there are still working very hard. They're the next guys – the ones that we have on the field. They're our guys."
Sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell was paired against Norwood for much of the night, struggling in one-on-one protection and often appearing outmanned.
Sowell, who used Sunday's film session to evaluate his performance, believes his struggles against USC are correctable.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, really. I was really down after the game, but in watching the game again, I can do this job," Sowell said. "I know I can, without a doubt. I got a little impatient with Norwood and freaked out a little bit, to be honest.
"Sometimes I overstepped and lost my patience instead of doing as I am coached, but the flip side is that it's all things I can correct. It's not a matter of being physically or mentally incapable of doing better, so that, in itself, is a little bit of a relief. I have the ability to do it, I know that now. I can see it on film. At times, I felt it in the game. I just have to correct the little things and I am going to do that. I am going to get this right."
When riding the wave of a top-5 ranking, distractions from praise can be a tricky thing.
The question for Ole Miss, a team that held its highest ranking since 1970, was its ability to temper the hype machine in its first true test of the season Thursday.
Falling by six in front of a nationally televised audience, the Rebels proved unable to hold up with the spotlight gleaming bright. But for Nutt, the season-turning loss could prove a blessing in disguise.
"We didn't handle that one good. The thing about the top-5 is that it's hard to tell a team that's in this position for the first time in over 40 years, OK let's forget about all this and that. Every single day they see it. You guys tell them. Hey, you're No. 4 this week. That's hard," Nutt said. "It's hard to put away. It's blocking, it's tackling, it's executing. It's throwing to our guys. It's blocking without the ball. It's playing together. That's what's hard. Deep down inside I probably knew we weren't 4 or 5, but I'm not going to go say that when you guys are telling us we are. That's just the way it is.
"We've got to do a better job. It was uncharted waters, and I knew that. I can't control the media and where we're picked. There are a lot of teams in that same position we're in. Lot of teams. You're going to see it every Saturday. This is toughest conference in America. You've got to be ready to go. It's the team that plays the best in that three hours, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and takes care of the ball, that's the team that's going to win."
Though the lofty ranking is gone (Ole Miss fell to No. 21 in the Associated Press top-25 and 18th in USA Today), junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett sees the loss as added motivation.
"All it was is a missed opportunity," he said. "We came out and executed, but things just didn't go our way. We ended up losing the game eventually. We just can't let it linger and gloom around us. We have a remainder of the season to play and from now on, anything can happen.
"Anything can change. We dropped from four to 21, but we can be right back in the top-10 with some wins. We just have to play ball and just forget about that. We'll just take it as motivation and fuel for the next game."
Notebook: Get Rhythm
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