They say the biggest improvement in a team occurs between games one and two of a season, and that was quite evident in Oxford, MS Saturday night as the Ole Miss Rebels took down the Miners from UTEP, 28-10 (OlemissSports.com game recap).
The first half of the opening game for Ole Miss against Central Arkansas was essentially a dress rehearsal for first-year head coach Hugh Freeze. After being down at halftime, the coaching adjustments and re-aligned starters were an offensive force, outscoring the Bears 35-7 the rest of the way.
As soon as Bo Wallace got the ball in his hands this week, the Rebels picked up right where they left off. After a couple of body blow runs by Randall Mackey, Moncrief found some separation down the field for a 55-yard touchdown, blowing the top off the Vaught, and the Miners were never able to recover.
We saw a very good team at times this week and we also saw some long periods of obvious (and expected) growing pains. This team is not quite ready for prime time and is not used to protecting leads and maintaining focus when the pressure is off.
All you can ask for if you are Hugh Freeze is improvement week to week, and I think we saw that Saturday, enough for a slight grade change to B-minus for Week 2.
Offensive Line (B)
Big improvement for the O-line which had some problems keeping defenders out of the backfield last week. Through the first two weeks of the 2012 season, Ole Miss is leading the SEC in rushing (yes, Ole Miss!) with 567 total yards on the ground, 332 against UTEP, and only gave up one sack to the Miners. Right Guard A. J. Hawkins wins co-offensive lineman of the week for his performance.
The line did give up seven tackles for a loss, including the sack, but that was less than last week's 11 TFL, so we are seeing improvement there also.
Bo Wallace didn’t have quite the statistical production this week against better competition but he also had a third-quarter vacation on the sideline as miscues and turnovers kept the ball out of his hands. Clearly Wallace has complete control of this offense, he looks really comfortable and patient in running the ball or going through his WR progressions. Wallace completed 15 of 22 passes this week for 175 yards.
Barry Brunetti got in for a possession in the fourth quarter and fairly quickly fumbled the ball on a zone-read QB carry. You don’t want Brunetti to regress as there could be opportunities for him in this offense, and at a minimum, Coach Freeze needs a quality backup if Wallace gets injured.
Wide Receivers (B)
The simple idea of blocking downfield is a welcome change for this Rebel team, giving the running backs a lot of room to run. This unit of wide receivers looks better than we thought. Everyone knows about Moncrief and Korvic Neat, but we didn’t know how capable the third and fourth options would be.
There aren’t many shining stars but short distance possession receivers will help Wallace a lot. Eleven different players have caught passes so far this year as Wallace is really spreading the ball around, finding the tight ends and running backs as well.
Running Backs (B)
Junior scat back Jeff Scott made an impressive season debut with 113 yards in only 13 carries. Senior Randall Mackey carried the ball 11 times for 66 yards but with a fumble at the worst possible time after a special teams turnover on the previous possession. At this point in the game the Rebels were trying to run some clock and protect the football. This is Mackey’s first year as a running back and he may struggle from time to time with being a “feature” back.
Jaylen Walton was outstanding in the first quarter, running the ball and scoring the second TD on a wheel route out of the backfield, showing he has good hands as well. He was a shoelace from scoring a long TD on the last play of the game. Itavius Mathers only got cleanup duty this week and looks solid as a true freshman.
THE BIG PICTURE
The defense stepped up this week and were tested by UTEP’s underneath passing game. They did give up a lot of short routes but only gave up one big play on a great post route throw by UTEP QB Nick Lamaison. In the red zone, the Rebels weren’t giving any ground, fighting through a goal line stand in the first half and three straight possessions in the third quarter due to Ole Miss turnovers, yielding zero points.
Issac Gross, a true freshman defensive lineman, just should not be playing this well, as he was in and around the action all night. Other guys stepped up when they were needed, like Gilbert Pena who shut down UTEP on a goal line stand in the second quarter. The Rebels got five more sacks against UTEP to push to nine total for the season, which leads the SEC.
A real weakness is developing in the special teams. Place kicker Bryson Rose is 0-4 after Saturday. Two punts were muffed and led to the third quarter debacle when Korvic Neat mishandled and lost a punt to UTEP. Philander Moore returned the favor but was luckily able to recover his muff.
The third quarter could have been a debacle playing against an SEC team. That could have easily resulted in two scores and a big momentum shift. Luckily Ole Miss did not have to face Nathan Jeffery, the star UTEP running back from the Oklahoma game, or this game would have been closer.
The Rebs look to take some momentum into Texas week at 2-0 for the first time since 2009. Coach Freeze reported no major injuries this week.
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