Improvement Incentive

Usually non-conference matchups late in a season are considered more harm than good. But for an Ole Miss offense in search of cohesion, a 6:30 p.m. meeting with Northern Arizona Saturday is welcomed with open arms. Read the story inside.

In most years, a non-conference matchup with Northern Arizona Saturday at 6:30 p.m. would be looked upon as nothing more than a glorified scrimmage.

To their credit, the Lumberjacks have proven to be no push-over this season, having won four of their last five games. Further, in its season opener against Arizona, NAU battled mightily before falling 34-17 on the road.

But for an Ole Miss team that has already dropped three games on the year, a get-by win over an inferior opponent isn't enough. Led by a turnover-plagued offense, the Rebels welcome the ninth game of the season on the heels of a difficult 33-20 loss to Auburn a week prior.

"After watching film, we're still so disappointed. We gave (Auburn) so many gifts," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of the Rebels' three turnovers against Auburn. "On the road in this league, you just can't give them those gifts. We gave them a lot and really beat ourselves."

And with three SEC contests remaining after Saturday, the Rebels can no longer be their own worst enemy if hopes of a repeat bowl berth are to be realized.

For the season, Ole Miss ranks fifth in the conference in total offense. More telling, however, the team also sits second to last in turnover margin at minus seven.

"It is amazing how well we have done when we have protected the football," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "We had a couple of turnovers against Arkansas and still did well. But the point is you have to string first downs together to get the opportunities to make big plays and get opportunities to score. You can't do that if you don't protect the ball."

In five wins, Ole Miss combined to turn the ball over 11 times. Though not viewed as efficient by any stretch, the Rebels did amass the 500-yard plateau in three of those contests, including 501 in an impressive 30-17 victory over Arkansas.

However, in three losses, Ole Miss has nearly equaled its turnovers with nine. Each loss resulted in poor performances for junior quarterback Jevan Snead, as the Stephenville, Texas native completed no better than 45 percent of his passes with six interceptions.

"We went back and did an analysis of what we're doing well across the board - all positions and all phases," said Austin. "We've found things we are struggling with and are going to throw them out. If it means we are going to have to go into games with a more limited package, that's what we will have to do."

Protection has also tended to be a problem for the Rebels this season, especially against the SEC's premier pass rushers.

At South Carolina, it was career sack leader Eric Norwood who had a dominant performance against a vastly inconsistent offensive line with two sacks. The trend didn't stop on the Plains, as Antonio Coleman notched two sacks and five total tackles.

According to Austin, the incessant pressure has taken away from the offense attacking the middle of the field in the passing game.

"We have called middle routes quite a bit, actually," he said. "Some of those have not worked due to sacks or being hurried in the pocket. Some have been because defenses have squeezed us and taken some of those routes away."

Along with erratic quarterback play and spotty protection, another contributing factor in Ole Miss' offensive struggles has been the lack of production at receiver outside of senior Shay Hodge.

For the second straight week against Auburn, Hodge emerged as the team leader in receptions with seven. So far this season, he's amassed 38 receptions for 564 yards, while only two other receivers have reached double digits in senior Dexter McCluster (27) and junior Lionel Breaux (10).

With McCluster being used as the team's primary running back, Hodge has seemingly become the team's only consistent wideout for production. Fellow receivers Pat Patterson and Markeith Summers have yet to record 10 catches with four games remaining in the season.

"Some of it's by design and some of it is (Snead) being very comfortable with me," Hodge said. "But some other receivers have to step up and make some big plays to get the focus off of me."

"We are still a work in progress at receiver," Austin added. "We are still trying to replace Mike (Wallace's) production and we knew that all along. We knew moving Dexter to tailback would take away receiver production, but we felt we had to do that."

While the superior team, complacency would be unwise for Ole Miss when taking the field to face NAU.

The Rebels face a final stretch run of Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State in the coming weeks. With each remaining opponent showing improvement in the season's closing stages, bowl eligibility is no sure bet.

However, due to a talented roster and a capability to win any of its four remaining games, Ole Miss controls its own destiny to embark on yet another "November to remember."

But it starts today.

"We are stressing that hard," Nutt said. "Anybody can come to work and do the same things they have done in the past and get the same results. But we're still teaching this team how to go from being down to having consistent success. We'll strive to get better every day. November is when you see some character - leadership, work ethic, attitude - especially if things have not gone as planned to this point.

"We can't fall back into the mode of accepting a loss. It's got to hurt and I'm glad we have a lot of hurt guys right now. But learn from it and don't make the same mistakes again."

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