BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The BBVACompass Bowl’s motto was “Southern Hospitality. Serious Football.” For Pitt, the team from Ole Miss was southern but not so hospitable.
By: Jeff Roberson, OMSpirit.com
In his memoir, John Vaught starts a diary the morning after winning the 1970 Sugar Bowl. In Chapter 21 of “Rebel Coach” that he calls Diary of a Season, he writes, “Even the strong New Orleans coffee tastes good today. All the Ole Miss people are still hugging each other.”
No matter what you’re drinking this morning or were last night, I’m sure there were hugs and high fives and Hotty Toddys enough for all.
This was an impressive victory the Ole Miss Rebels won 38-17 against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Their records were both 6-6. In the end, with the Rebels claiming their first winning season in three years, it was a mismatch.
I wasn’t sure it would be. As a matter of fact, I was almost certain it wouldn’t be after talking to Pitt players and coaches for two days prior. I thought it would be close, or had a shot to be.
The Panthers talked about their intensity and preparation, how this year’s bowl prep was different than the past two because they went through some tough practices, even this week in Hoover, Ala. That the program is rebuilding, and first-year head coach Paul Chryst wants to be there and showed that by staying, when he might have had a chance to head to Wisconsin.
The Panthers might well have believed he would leave them. It would have been their third straight bowl in Birmingham and third straight interim head coach here.
But Chryst stayed, and now he and his troops are back in Pennsylvania getting ready to plan year two of the regime and build on what year one meant.
That’s exactly what’s happening at Ole Miss. First-year head coach Hugh Freeze is continuing to build a program in year two, which has now begun. And you know he’s anxious for Feb. 6.
Signing Day could be special. January is definitely going to be very interesting. Can folks, including coaches, players, and fans, be patient until a month from today? They’ll have to be.
The tone was set in the bowl game with an early and rare interception by fifth-year senior Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, picked by Senquez Golson who returned it to the Panther 23. In five plays the Rebels scored on a 14-yard pass from Bo Wallace to Ja-Mes Logan. They never trailed.
But maybe the tone was set even before that. Channing Ward stopped Panther return man Lafayette Pitts cold on the opening kickoff before a bowl record crowd announced at 59,135, which, if that’s how many were there, had to include 45,000, maybe 50,000 Rebel fans. It was a stadium sea of red.
Some had wondered if a five-week layoff would affect the Rebels in a late-season bowl game. Obviously it didn’t. If there was some rust, it was hard to find. The Rebels clicked most of the day.
Even two interceptions by Wallace, the sophomore quarterback with two more years, didn’t derail the express. After leading 14-0, the Rebels simply answered two Pitt scores. In the third and fourth quarters, they pulled away. And Wallace was named the bowl’s MVP.
The final Rebel touchdown was a 62-yard run by true freshman I’Tavius Mathers with 8:48 left. Bryson Rose’s BBVACompass Bowl record fifth extra point made it 38-10 Ole Miss.
Like I pointed out earlier, and surprisingly so given how Pitt had improved this season with some impressive showings, this was a mismatch.
That lengthy run gave Mathers the leading rusher stat for the Rebels on this day at 96 yards on six carries. Jeff Scott went out early with a pulled hamstring.
Some other young players got in the mix and did some things well. Another running back, true freshman Jaylen Walton, actually carried the football more than anyone with 10 rushes and was second to Mathers on the ground with 56 yards. He also had a couple of kick returns.
There were others involved, but you get the picture. This was a total team win with a lot of players getting to play. This win, this season, can do nothing but help this program continue to rise.
Redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche, who early on this season became a team leader, said so many young players have gotten better this year. He expects big things from them next year and in the years to come, especially on his side of the ball.
“I don’t really know how to explain that, but they’ve impressed me so much, just being out there with them and seeing how they’ve grown and picked up the defense and tried to master it,” he said. “Seeing how they go in and watch film. It’s impressed me big-time, and the sky’s the limit for this young defense.”
On the flip side, Nkemdiche said the seniors on this year’s team need to be given much credit for this program going from 2-10 under the former staff to 7-6 under the new staff. He said he is ecstatic the team was able to send them out a winner.
“When you talk about that, it gives me chills,” Nkemdiche said. “Over this season, we all grew so close. The only thing on our minds was to win football games. When we finally started clicking and coming together like brothers, our relationships went to another level, and we started playing out of love.
“So being able to do this for them was extremely huge,” he continued. “This is something they’ll be able to remember for a long time and tell their kids and their grandkids.”
Coach Vaught concluded that first day of his diary of a season, Jan. 2, 1970, with his hope for the season coming up that fall. Although the Rebels back then didn’t reach it, he didn’t shy away from his goal for them.
“I would like to bring a 10-0 team back here next year,” he said of what he hoped would be another Sugar Bowl appearance, the ninth for Ole Miss.
The Rebels didn’t accomplish that feat, although they did have another bowl team, playing in the Gator Bowl after some disappointing setbacks and injuries.
As for Hugh Freeze and the fall of 2013, he’ll approach it the same way he did 2012. That’s with a plan in place for success, and when failures come, a way to handle those as well.
“I know we get judged on wins and losses,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about a journey together in life. We’ve proven we can be competitive. We’re excited about the process and the next step.”
Which begins today, but actually began well before that.