The Ole Miss Rebels (3-2, 1-2 SEC) return home to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for a battle with No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) this weekend, after having taken to the road in four of their first five games.
While Ole Miss had road success early against Vanderbilt and Texas, the Rebels past two away games have dealt them two losses. A team struggling to find its true identity as the halfway point approaches in the season, entering a six-game home stand should help Hugh Freeze's club get back on track.
That being said, first up for the Rebels in Oxford is an Aggies offense as potent as any in America (followed next week by No. 10 LSU). There's no rest for the weary and the nation is about to find out the true identity of what thus far has been an Ole Miss team of multiple identities.
Will the Rebels pull an upset against the Aggies or Tigers and regain some swagger?
Or will they drop both contests—sending the red and blue into a downward, four-consecutive-loss spiral to enter the second half of the season?
Between inefficient offensive line play, a stagnant offense, a suspect run defense and a team as a whole that has just appeared out of sorts over the past two weeks, Ole Miss coaches have a lot of areas to address this week in practice. Moreover, players must begin to correct mistakes.
When the lights come on Saturday night, Rebel faithful are going to find out about the character of this club. Having generated a great deal of buzz among a 7-6 turnaround campaign in 2012, a high-ranked 2013 recruiting class and a 3-0 start to the current season, there are suddenly critics galore following the Rebels 25-0 loss at Alabama and 30-22 loss on the Plains.
Facing one of the greatest college quarterbacks to ever play the game, Freeze's club has a chance to do what they know they're capable of doing—fight mightily for four full quarters against an invigorated college football giant and just see who's left standing at the end of the night.
Let's take a look at some keys to the game for both teams.
When: Saturday, Oct. 12; 7:30 p.m. CT
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Mississippi
Satellite Radio: Sirius 93, XM 199
Series History: Texas A&M leads 5-0
In Oxford: Texas A&M 1-0
Spread: Texas A&M (-5), per VegasInsider.com Consensus
Offensive Line Protection
Quarterback Bo Wallace and running back Jeff Scott haven't had time to breathe the past two games.
If the Rebels wish to become efficient again on offense, offensive line protection must improve.
Youngsters Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson have been tapped early in their careers, and they're coming along as well as any true freshmen could be expected to in the SEC. They'll continue to get better with each passing game, but there's a learning curve for even the most talented freshmen.
Over the past two games at Alabama and Auburn, the O-Line has allowed 21 QB hurries (17 at Auburn), 19 tackles for loss and eight sacks (6 at Auburn). That spells disaster for an offense struggling to get back on track.
On the flip side, in Ole Miss' three wins of 2013, the O-Line only allowed 12 TFL, eight QBH and seven sacks. It's a very telling statistic, when pondering exactly what's happened to the Ole Miss offense.
As good as they've been on offense, the A&M defense has had more than a few issues.
Now, the unit faces more trouble, following the injury to senior nose guard Kirby Ennis. The Dallas Morning News' Kate Hairopolous reports:
Texas A&M senior nose guard Kirby Ennis went down with a knee injury Sept. 28 in the first half against Arkansas.
Ennis, 6-4, 310, came back in the second half, a brace encasing his utility pole of a left leg. But it crumpled again almost immediately.
Now Ennis is out for the season, requiring surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament, coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday, forcing the troubled Aggie defense to absorb another blow.
Enhanced O-Line protection will be key to the Rebels upset bid. If the line plays better football, there's good reason to believe QB Bo Wallace, RB Jeff Scott and the rest of the Ole Miss offense will shine.
Bend, But Don't Break Defense
Entering the A&M game, the Rebels rank No. 40 in total defense (361.4 YPG).
While Manziel is going to pick up real estate against the Rebels, both with his legs and his arm, the home team must be able to play "bend, but don't break defense" this weekend.
This season, Manziel is producing 360.1 yards of offense per contest. That's a lot, folks.
Not only will the Ole Miss D have to try and contain the Heisman Trophy winner all night, but they'll also have to keep an eye on players like RB Ben Malena and WR Mike Evans.
Malena, a player that gave the Rebels fits last season in Oxford, has already picked up seven rushing touchdowns in 2013 despite only averaging 60.6 YPG on the ground.
As for Evans, he's arguably the best receiver in college football.
Through five games this year, he's averaging 138.2 YPG receiving (No. 3).
From defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche to linebacker Serderius Bryant to FS Cody Prewitt, it's going to take a true team effort to slow down an extremely efficient A&M offense. The Rebels must be able to "contain" an explosive offense and come up with a turnover or two to have a chance.
Get in the Ole Miss Backfield
As crucial as it is for Ole Miss' offensive line to step up Saturday night, it's equally as important to A&M that its defensive line plays better football. Through their first five games, the Aggies top four tacklers are all defensive backs. That's not a good sign for a defense.
Further, Texas A&M hasn't gotten to opposing quarterbacks very often in 2013.
Bleacher Report's Michael Taglienti writes:
The Texas A&M defense has produced four sacks in five games. To put that in perspective, the 2012 defense had eight sacks in the season-opener against Florida.
The Aggies have not been able to produce a pass rush with their front four. They have not been able to blitz a lot because Mark Snyder has had to use the linebackers to help in pass coverage.
In comparison, Auburn sacked Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace six times last week.
Something has to give when the Rebels O-Line meets the A&M D-Line this weekend.
An inefficient Ole Miss offensive line has helped derail the Rebels offense in recent weeks. To keep that trend alive, the Texas A&M defensive line will need to find ways to get in the Rebels' backfield.
Jump on the Rebels Early
The Rebels will square off against Texas A&M as a team out of sorts over its past two games.
You better believe Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies know it, too.
The best thing the Aggies can do Saturday night is to to jump on Ole Miss early and take the crowd out of the game in Oxford.
Johnny Football and friends have outscored opponents 66-38 in first quarters this season. On the other hand, the Rebels have outscored their opponents by a combined 44-23 over the first quarter this fall.
When the Rebels have scored first, they're 3-0. However, when an opponent has scored first, Ole Miss is 0-2. Good or bad, a relatively young Ole Miss team feeds greatly off of how the team starts.
In wins over Vandy, SEMO and Texas, the Rebels outscored their opponents 41-7 in the opening quarter. However, in their two losses, the Rebels were actually outscored 16-3 in the first quarter.
Coming off three straight road games and licking their wounds after a disappointing loss at Auburn, the Rebels are happy to be back home this week. Behind what should be an electric atmosphere at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss players will be excited at the chance to pull the upset and dish the Aggies revenge after last year's 30-27 heart-breaker.
If Manziel can put a couple of early scores on the board against the Ole Miss D, life will be sucked out of the home crowd and doubt will begin to linger in the minds of Ole Miss players.
While Texas A&M likely can't put a dagger in the Rebs' heart in the first quarter, the Aggies can certainly make things much, much more difficult for a team already on the mend.
QBs Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti
Not to beat a dead horse, but spotty O-Line protection has led to diminishing returns for the Ole Miss offense in recent weeks. As a result, quarterback Bo Wallace hasn't had time to get into a rhythm.
Ahead of the Alabama game, the junior took lots of heat for suggesting that his offense would put points on the Crimson Tide. Well, that didn't happen.
However, the Ole Miss signal-caller is right to have confidence in his offense. It may have been inefficient lately, but the Rebels offense remains loaded with play-makers such as running back Jeff Scott, wide receivers Donte Moncrief, Laquon Treadwell, Evan Engram and Ja-Mes Logan among others.
As previously mentioned, the Texas A&M defense ranks No. 117 in team passing sacks, No. 109 in rushing defense and No. 94 in TFL. Bottom line: Wallace should have more time to make better decisions this weekend than he has had in a while.
In terms of role-playing reserve QB Barry Brunetti, he should continue to see playing time Saturday.
If the O-Line provides protection and Wallace gets the offense going in the first half, Brunetti instantly adds another dimension to the Rebels offense. While he nearly always takes off running when lined up behind center, Freeze won't be afraid to spice things up and let him take a chance down field every now and then. Saturday night would be an opportune time.
Don't be surprised to see Brunetti throw a ball or two against the Aggies.
RB Jeff Scott
The Miami, FL senior absolutely must get more touches in games if the Ole Miss offense is to pick up where it left off at Texas. It's just that simple.
While Scott is averaging 84.8 YPG rushing and 15.2 YPG receiving, he's really been hit or miss this season carrying the football. In the win over Vandy, he rushed 12 times for 138 yards. In the road win at Texas, Scott rushed 19 times for 164 yards. Between the those two games, he averaged 151 YPG on the ground.
However, the senior only ran the ball 14 total times for 94 yards in recent road losses at Alabama and Auburn. That's not the kind of production the Rebels need to get out of Scott.
All of that being said, there's a reason Hugh Freeze hasn't been able to get the ball in Scott's hands more often over the past couple of contests—poor offensive line play.
Against one of the weaker defensive fronts the Rebels have faced this fall, the O-Line should fare much better.
If the offensive line can establish a strong, physical presence from the get-go Saturday night, Scott should easily see 15-plus carries. And if that's the case, at least based upon past performances, he could have a big night against the Aggies.
It should go without even saying, but QB Johnny "Heisman" Manzel is the player to watch on Saturday.
So far in 2013, he's completing 71.4-percent of his passes, rushing for 62.8 YPG and throwing for just under 300 YPG. He's a lethal weapon that's helped guide the Aggies to 586.4 YPG of total offense.
Just over a year ago in Oxford, a then-freshman Manziel tossed two interceptions to go along with a fumble in a narrow 30-27 victory. It was a game in which the Aggies turned the ball over six times and had to overcome a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to head home with the win.
While No. 2 picked up 120 yards and a score on the ground, he only threw for 191 yards on the night.
Having seen the type of damage mobile Auburn QB Nick Marshall did to the Rebels this past weekend, Manziel will likely enter the game knowing he should be able to find some holes in the Ole Miss defense.
If he can pick up some real estate scrambling, even more opportunities should open up through the air.
He's going to have a big game against Ole Miss like he does nearly every time he suits up.
If the Rebels can't at least "contain" him somewhat, early in the contest, it could be a very long night for the home crowd.
WR Mike Evans
At 6'5'' and 225 pounds, Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans is a truly special athlete.
After pulling in 82 catches for 1,105 yards and five scores as a freshman last year, he's playing even better as a sophomore in 2013. Through just five games, Evans is averaging 138.2 YPG and has already matched last year's touchdown total at five.
What did he do against Alabama back on September 14?
He torched the Tide secondary for 279 yards on seven receptions.
In his last outing, on the road at Arkansas, he pulled in six catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
In facing the Ole Miss pass defense, Evans will go up against a unit that is only allowing 157 YPG passing over the past four games. Nevertheless, he'll present a stiff challenge to the Rebels secondary.
Over his last four contests, Evans has hauled in balls of 42 (Sam Houston State), 95 (Alabama), 46 (SMU) and 47 yards (Arkansas). In contrast, the Ole Miss secondary has only allowed one pass of greater than 25 yards in its last four games.
Just as the Rebels must limit the big-play damage from Manziel, they must also limit the number of big plays by Evans. Specifically, Ole Miss must wrap him up on the first try. If not, he's capable of carving up the D on yards after catches.
During Hugh Freeze's weekly press conference, he talked about the approach the Rebels must take to try and slow QB Johnny Manziel:
You have to be multiple. You can’t just give them one thing. There are no bad coaches in this league and they have tremendous players, so they will make adjustments if they get a beat on exactly what you’re doing. We did have a good plan (last year). We contained him for the better part of three quarters, but in the fourth quarter he showed why he won the Heisman trophy. We’ll look at last year’s (tape) very closely and use what we thought was good, and try to mix in some new stuff. We were able to create some turnovers last year which was big. Hopefully we can have a repeat of that performance and contain him a bit – you’re not going to stop him, but hopefully contain him and give us a chance to be in it late in the game.
The second-year Rebels head coach also discussed the challenges of defending NFL-ready wide receiver Mike Evans:
We’re trying to think out of the box a little bit on who we might put on him in some situations that could compete for a jump ball with him. We’re thinking along those lines. But certainly, even if you have him covered there’s no guarantee that he’s not going to make the play. He’s got a few other good receivers too around him. You’ve got to be careful, you can’t just put two out there all the time on him or they’ll kill you with the run or the other receivers.
In terms of what his aggressive style tells to some of the younger players, Freeze said:
I’m aggressive by nature, but we’re also at a point in our program right now where you want to prove to your kids we’re not coming there to be close. We want to come in and win. The ones late in the game I thought were reasonable chances where you needed to score touchdowns because you knew at any point they could. We needed to get some points on the board. But I am aggressive by nature, too.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin talked to the media about how QB Johnny Manziel has adjusted his game, now with a year of experience under his belt:
He’s matured when he takes off. He's probably slid more in the last two weeks than he's slid in his life. He’s going through his reads. It's a comfort level for both sides. He’s more comfortable being in his second year back there. He has freedom within the offense to check plays rather than him being stuck and having to take off and run with it. He has the ability now to look at some things and change the play to something that has a high probability of not being a negative play. It has nothing to do with telling him not to run as much. It has to do with his overall growth and development as a quarterback.
A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney described the mindset of his offense, every time it takes the field:
Our goal as an offense is to score touchdowns every time we get on the field. We focus on getting first downs and scoring touchdowns. When it doesn't happen, everyone’s disappointed. We want to be 100% on third down and in the red zone. Those things result in touchdowns. Hopefully it happens a lot more than it doesn’t happen. I just want to score more points than the other team. If that means that we score one touchdown in ten tries and they don’t score at all, I’m happy at the end of the day. We’ll have to improve on that. When we’re going against our defense in practice we try and score touchdowns and we’re disappointed when we don’t.
Johnny Football is well worth the price of admission, whether you love him or hate him.
Saturday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss fans will again wait with baited breath every time he attempts to do what he does best: turning nothing into something. He's college football's Houdini.
In 2012, the Rebels did a fairly good job of "containing" the then-freshman quarterback. In fact, Ole Miss held a 10-point lead over the Aggies at one point in the fourth quarter. However, Manziel engineered two late scoring drives to ultimately leave Oxford victorious.
While the Aggies enter the contest off an open week, the Rebels return home after two tough SEC road losses. Nonetheless, the Rebels should benefit this week by returning home after playing on the road in four of their first five games this year.
The Ole Miss offense has been stagnant lately, specifically in terms of putting points on the board. However, facing an A&M defense that's given up 28 or more points in four of its first five games, the Rebels offense should get back to it's old ways.
Nevertheless, having thrown a pick-six on the Plains last weekend, QB Bo Wallace does have to be cautious against the Aggies. Texas A&M linebacker Tommy Sanders and defensive back Deshazor Everett have both pulled in two interceptions already this season.
As vulnerable as the Rebels defense has been in second quarters this season (given up 50 points), it's been solid in the final quarter of play (only having allowed 19 points). Along the same lines, the Texas A&M D appears to play its best football in the fourth quarter (only having allowed 24 points).
If the Ole Miss O-Line gives QB Bo Wallace and RB Jeff Scott time to make plays, then the Rebels should be in the thick of things the entire night. If not, things could get ugly.
Vegas only has Texas A&M as a five-point favorite over the Rebels, and more times than not Vegas knows what Vegas is talking about. I believe that's the case here, too.
To pull the upset over a Top 10 Texas A&M club, the Rebels will have to create a few turnovers and catch a few breaks. And that's something no writer or sportscaster can predict.
I won't go so far as to call the upset, but it wouldn't surprise me.
That being said, I think both offenses will move the ball up and down the field throughout the night. Turnovers—specifically point production following turnovers—will determine which team remains standing at the end of what should be an offensive slug fest.
Texas A&M 42 - Ole Miss 37