Ole Miss Preview

Critics can point to a number of ills to explain the poor start by the Ole Miss football team: A defense that has allowed nearly 400 yards per game, poor production in the red zone by the offense or turnovers and untimely penalties.

While Rebels' coach David Cutcliffe would agree that all of the above have proven costly at times this year, the overriding factor in a 3-3 start has been a rash of costly injuries. Few teams can match the list of wounded players as far as sheer numbers. Many of them have been key starters who must be healthy if Ole Miss is to succeed.

"This is the worst the injury situation has been since I have been at Ole Miss," Cutcliffe said. "We have had a lot of missed practice time this year and that has certainly hurt us. I don't recall a time in my career when there were more injuries, but I know this is the most injuries we have had since I have been here."

From the start of the season through last week's game with South Carolina, the list of injured players grew. Even as some returned from minor injuries, others went down.

After the Vanderbilt game, Cutcliffe was trying to keep tabs on the status of "about 20 players" being evaluated by the training staff. Among the injured players were receiver Bill Flowers, defensive linemen Michael Bozeman, Corey Mills, Daniel Booth and Chris Herring, offensive linemen Bobby Harris, Tre Stallings and Tony Bonds.

Some returned to action; others did not. Heading into the South Carolina game, receiver Mike Espy and center Chris Spencer joined the injured list. Defensive lineman McKinley Boykin and defensive back Nate Banks have also missed time with injuries.

The Rebels hope the majority of the injured players will be available for Saturday's battle with Tennessee. At full strength, Ole Miss might have a chance against the Vols, particularly after its confidence-boosting win over the Gamecocks.

The Rebels' running game has improved in recent weeks, and quarterback Ethan Flatt is emerging as the leader at quarterback. His 29-yard pass to Flowers late in Saturday's game lifted the Rebels over South Carolina. Flatt has passed for 927 yards and four touchdowns.

The emergence of Vashon Pearson at running back has greatly aided the offense. He has averaged 97 yards rushing per game.

"I've got my chance now," Pearson said. "I'm just trying to make the best of my opportunity. I also give credit to the offensive line. They have been great at opening up the holes, and I have been able to find them."

Cutcliffe has been pleased with Pearson's performance.

"Vashon is finishing runs better," he said. "He is also using his speed better and making cuts when he needs to. He is definitely seeing the holes better and giving us more out of each run. There are still some things he can work on, but with his strength and speed, he could be a very good back for us."

The Ole Miss defense must get better if the Rebels are to improve. The Rebels are giving up 230 yards passing and 163 rushing.

"We have struggled in third-down situations," Cutcliffe said. "We will make a good play and then give up a big play. We are in position to make plays and then don't. That's a mystery and something we have to continue to work on." Pearson hopes the offense and defense can put it all together in the next few weeks against a tough SEC slate of games.

"We've got to step things up a notch," he said. "We've got some things to work on."

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