NASHVILLE, Tenn. – At times, it wasn’t pretty, but the Ole Miss Rebels kept digging and scratching, overcoming a 21-10 halftime deficit and a 35-32 deficit with 1:30 to go in the game to prevail 39-35 over Vanderbilt in Nashville. How?
Trailing 21-10 at halftime, allowing four QB sacks and not putting up much of a fight defensively, things looked bleak for the Ole Miss Rebels in their lidlifter against Vanderbilt here Thursday night.
One would have to believe at halftime the Rebel coaches would be fire and brimstone.
One would be wrong.
Hugh Freeze and his staff, in fact, spoke in low tones and were matter-of-fact in their delivery. The players had to really pay attention just to hear their halftime instructions.
The mantra was simple – here’s what we need to do from a scheme standpoint and here’s what you need to do – play for 60 minutes, nothing more, nothing less.
Freeze calmed the troops, who, frankly, had a bewildered look on their faces as they left the field for intermission. Deer in headlights.
“The coaches did a great job of calming all of us down,” said OLB Denzel Nkemdiche postgame. “They didn’t scream and holler, they were relaxed and calm and that settled us down.”
The “settled down” Rebels came out strong in the second half, finally gaining a 32-28 lead with 9:05 to play on a Bo Wallace rushing TD, his second of the game.
But then the unthinkable, and, really, inexcusable happened. Vandy converted a 4th-and-18 with 1:40 to go in the game to Jordan Matthews, the VU star receiver. Yes, a 4th-and-18. Yes, to Matthews. Then on the next play, a tight end wheel route for a 34-yard score with no Rebel within 20 yards of the lumbering receiver.
That could have easily been game, set and match with just 1:30 to go in the contest, but the Rebs did not panic, Freeze saw Vandy was set up to stop the pass, he called a run and the dazzling romp – by Jeff Scott – went for 75 yards and the winning score.
A Cody Prewitt interception ended the game and the Rebels escaped with the unlikely, considering the circumstances, win.
They did that with freshman WR Laquon Treadwell, freshman TE Evan Engram, freshman RG Austin Golson and freshman LT Laremy Tunsil on the field.
“I don’t know how they graded, but I can tell you this without reservations – they played their tails of,” said OL Coach Mat Luke.
So what did we learn from the opener?
One, there is a lot to correct. Freeze, DC Dave Wommack and OC Dan Werner all said the same. It was no secret. There were a lot of mistakes, enough that Freeze said postgame, tongue-in-cheek, “I was praying that I wasn’t going to kill my defensive staff after that last score by Vandy.”
Two, the Rebs showed a lot of composure. It is tough being down 21-10 at half on the road in the SEC to a mature team. It is even tougher to be down by three with ninety seconds to go. Composure, even when things were going the wrong way.
Three, depth. In the past, if a couple of offensive linemen had gone down, the replacements would not have held up under this scrutiny. In the past, most Rebel teams would have wilted under this heat and this pressure, but the coaches ran in a lot of players, on both sides of the ball, and the end result is they were the fresher team at the end.
Four, the freshmen are everything they were touted to be, and some. Tony Connor intercepted the first pass thrown his way. Treadwell caught nine balls. Nine. Engram caught five balls. Five. Tunsil and Golson were special, all things considered. Robert Nkemdiche was solid as the rock he is. And the list goes on.
Five, no turnovers for Bo Wallace. That has been the battle cry for Werner since last year. Bo threw two that could have been picked, but they weren’t and he was otherwise flawless. P.S. – No turnovers for the entire offense.
Six, our coaches, again, showed they know what to do at halftime. Their adjustments were right on time and cue. The offense and defense were both disheveled at halftime, but they were both, overall, much better in the second half. Adjustments.
Yes, the Rebs were a bit fortunate to get away from Nashville with a win, but the bottom line is they won and kept their momentum going and that was the only objective when the team bus left Oxford Wednesday afternoon.
Bottom line? Fins up, baby. 1-0.
— Chuck Rounsaville, OMSpirit.com Publisher