Though having to scheme against the implemented spreads of Memphis and UAB, to the traditional styles of South Carolina and Alabama, Ole Miss still sits fifth in the Southeastern Conference in total defense. Even better, the unit ranks eighth nationally in pass defense, surrendering only 152.3 yards per game through the air so far.
However, with the conference's top ranked passing offense in Arkansas rolling into Oxford Saturday, the Rebels face their toughest challenge to date.
"Ryan Mallett is the best guy we've faced," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "He can throw it and has really good receivers. Their backs are good and they have a good tight end. They have real weapons. We have to do a really good job in our coverage, tackling and pass rush."
Leading the SEC and ranking 12th in the country in passing yards per game (274.3), Mallett leads a Razorback attack averaging 436 yards of total offense per game.
As a former transfer from Michigan, the first-year quarterback has completed 103-of-187 passes for league highs of 1,646 yards and 14 touchdowns. Mallett has also thrown at least one touchdown in all six contests for the Razorbacks this season, while ranking second in the SEC in pass efficiency (150.52).
In only his second start under center for Arkansas against Georgia, Mallett completed 21-of-39 passes. His 408 passing yards and five touchdowns in the game were both UA single-game records.
Suffice it to say, the Rebel secondary has its hands full.
"Mallett is the best quarterback we have seen in the passing game. He's very impressive," said defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. "Against Georgia, his game looked like a highlight reel and he wasn't too shabby against Florida, who has one of the top defenses in our league. He doesn't seem to get rattled under pressure. He's very poised. Every week, he's gotten better."
"He's a monster," senior defensive end Greg Hardy added. "I really didn't know about him until I started watching him play two or three games ago. He was breaking down defenses. He's talented. It's going to be real vital that we get back there, shake up the pocket and get him uncomfortable."
But don't expect Hardy and company to be intimidated.
Though slowing Mallett will certainly be a difficult task, Ole Miss counters with one of the more disruptive defensive lines in college football. Led by junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, who tops the team in sacks and tackles for loss, the Rebels boast the fourth-best sacks unit in the SEC.
Further, as a true pocket-passer, Mallett offers little in terms of scrambling. And after yielding over 100 yards rushing to UAB quarterback Joe Webb in a 48-13 win last weekend, it's a welcomed sight.
"His strength is his arm. We just played one (Joe Webb) whose strength was his mobility. This guy is different," Nix said. "He's not as mobile, but he seems to avoid the rush long enough to throw a lot of big passes down the field. We are still going to have to be disciplined in our rush lanes."
"When you get there, you know he's going to be there. He's not a guy who's going to scramble," Lockett added. "He's a typical NFL quarterback. He's sits in the pocket like Peyton Manning, takes a lick and still delivers the ball. So you know if you beat the man in front of you, he'll be there and you'll have an opportunity to sack him and get him on the ground. All we have to do is get after him and see what happens after that."
Currently, Ole Miss ranks third in the SEC and eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.0 points per game. Dating back to last season, the Rebels are holding opponents to a mere 12.2 points over their last 10 games, while having posted two shutouts.
But despite it all, getting pressure on Mallet will be primary focal point Saturday, as the sophomore has only thrown three interceptions this season. Overall, Arkansas is plus-seven in turnover margin on the year, tying for first in the SEC and ninth nationally.
"He stays poised and has a cannon, but he doesn't move around a lot," junior defensive tackle Jerrell Powe said. "Hopefully, that will work to our advantage."
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