The Ole Miss Rebels moved to 2-0 (1-0 SEC) on the young season by downing the Southeast Missouri (SEMO) Redhawks 31-13 in front of a sellout crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
While Hugh Freeze came out victorious in the home opener, the game was really a tale of two halves.
Initiated by a 37-yard field goal early in the first quarter by senior kicker Andrew Ritter, the Rebels next took a 10-0 lead behind a four-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback and red-zone specialist Barry Brunetti. Only two minutes later, with just over a minute left in the opening quarter, quarterback Bo Wallace hooked up with true freshman starting tight end Evan Engram for a 64-yard touchdown pass.
As solid as consensus 5-star recruits, per 247Sports, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Tony Conner and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil have performed in their first two outings, Engram has been just as good, if not better.
Less than three minutes after Engram scored on the long pass, wide receiver Donte Moncrief hauled in his own 67-yard score from Wallace to put the Rebs up 24-0 with 13 minutes left before the half. The Ole Miss scoring machine wasn't done, though, as running back I'Tavius Mathers trotted 10 yards midway through the second to give his club a 31-0 lead entering the half.
Having surrendered a 10-0 first-quarter lead to Vanderbilt last Thursday before yielding 21 unanswered points in the second quarter, the Rebels coaching staff and fans alike had to be pleased with a complete first half of play against the Redhawks (leading 31-0 at the half).
However, the second half wouldn't go exactly as the home crowd would have hoped against SEMO.
With a 31-0 lead entering the third quarter, Wallace would not return after a solid 8-of-15, 188-yard performance in the first half, which included two touchdowns. That made way for the seasoned reserve, Brunetti, to take the reins for the majority of the second half.
The Rebels somewhat let their foot off the gas, feeling confident with a 31-point lead, and that's when SEMO found a little bit of success. In the third quarter, SEMO QB Scott Lathrop threw two touchdown passes to fellow Redhawks, putting SEMO down by only 18 points at the end of the third.
However, the Rebels defense came together and would go on to shut out SEMO in the final quarter, giving Ole Miss a 31-13 victory in front of the home crowd.
Had Wallace returned in the second half, there's little doubt the Rebels would have continued to roll on offense the way they did in the first half. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Ole Miss is now 2-0.
The importance of a healthy Wallace moving forward remains paramount for Ole Miss. While Brunetti filled in and amassed 111 yards on 18 carries (including a rushing score of his own), the senior continued to struggle through the air as he has in previous years. He only managed to go 3-of-12 for 48 yards passing on the night. Further, he lost two of his three fumbles in the contest.
Brought in close to the goal line as he was against Vandy and SEMO, scoring three times in two games, Brunetti is very efficient. However, he's still not someone the Rebels can rely on as a true quarterback in crunch time.
With a road trip to Texas coming next Saturday, followed by a trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium after an open week, it will be Wallace's time to shine for four quarters if the Rebels are to pull off an upset.
On the rushing front, the Rebels posted a 200-yard performance for the second consecutive week.
Defensively (granted, SEMO isn't Vandy), Ole Miss held SEMO to 252 yards of offense on the night (in comparison to 426 given up to the Commodores offense). Further, defensive back Cody Prewitt continued his stellar play by picking up an interception in his second straight outing.
All in all, the Ole Miss Rebels did what they were supposed to do: beat SEMO.
Freeze's Rebels will likely fall inside the Top 25 when the new polls come out this week, sitting at 2-0 (1-0 SEC). The freshmen are coming on strong, and the team has looked solid.
It will be interesting to see if the Rebels can put together four solid quarters of play in Austin and Tuscaloosa, as the competition is about to get much, much tougher in the weeks ahead. If they can, a marquee road upset is entirely in the cards for this explosive offense.