I never thought this was going to be an easy game for Ole Miss, but looking at UTEP’s performance in its season opener against No. 4 Oklahoma — a 24-7 loss in which the Miners trailed just 10-7 after three quarters — this team will be more competitive than some might have hoped.
UTEP was picked by Conference USA coaches to finish fourth in the West Division but didn’t look like a division underling in Week 1.
It did look different. A UTEP team that has traditionally passed successfully under Mike Price was just 7-for-26 passing for 48 yards. The Miners off-set that with a strong rushing game led by tailback Nathan Jeffery, who had 177 yards on 21 carries.
What the UTEP offense did not do was get in the end zone. The Miners’ only score came when they returned a blocked punt for a touchdown with 9:20 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The theme for the UTEP offense this week is “finish.”
There are troublesome matchups in this game for Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss players speak of a UTEP defensive front that is physical and effective, not good news for an Ole Miss offensive line that allowed more than ample pass rush against Division I-AA Central Arkansas.
The Miners were also impressive with their tackling last week. They were able to make 1-on-1 stops in the open field. If they can repeat that they’ll take away an important element of the Freeze offense which tries to get the ball to its playmakers in space and depends on guys like Donte Moncrief to make someone miss.
On the plus side for the Rebels … I like the fact that an Ole Miss team beginning a new era after the dismal finish to 2011 was able to open the season with a I-AA opponent. (I’m saying I-AA, because it just sounds more definitive than FCS.) There were obvious issues to correct, but the Rebels were able to make halftime adjustments, a rarity last year, and control the second half of play. There is more confidence around this team now than there was a week ago.
Bo Wallace was solid in his first game at quarterback. It’s unrealistic to think he’ll complete 20-of-24 attempts (should have been 22-of-24) every week, but he fits well in the offense. He was much better than what we’d seen in camp.
The offense gets stronger this week with a healthy Randall Mackey — He played through an illness against UCA — and the return of Jeff Scott. The Rebels will move the ball on the ground again. It will be interesting to see how Freeze uses Mackey and Scott on the field at the same time.
It’s good for Ole Miss to have a second game at home as it tries to build confidence.
Maybe the lengthy road trip and the first road game of the season has an adverse effect on UTEP. Maybe, but that’s not something the Rebels should count on. Coaches often say they see the most improvement between Week 1 and Week 2, and the Rebels are going to have to up their game and play good football against a stronger opponent than they faced in Week 1.
They need this win. Freeze says he is only looking at how his team competes and isn’t counting wins … but that doesn’t mean his fan base isn’t counting wins. There’s still a daunting SEC schedule ahead and an SEC losing streak that much be broken. It’s a difficult challenge, and if Ole Miss can pick up a second win Saturday it charts a path that could lead to four or five wins in Freeze’s first year.
And it would manufacture quite a bit of excitement leading to a Week 3 matchup at home against another state school from Texas.
Prediction: Ole Miss 28, UTEP 27