Quite a finish for the Rebels today.
Walking down from the press box Ole Miss had just punted in what I thought was its last best chance to tie the game.
But the Ole Miss defense forced a quick three-and-out and forced Alabama to punt from its end zone. You know the rest.
Walking down I thought the game was about to play out like I predicted on the blog Thursday — an inspired effort, a close result but ultimately a loss.
It didn’t play out that way for several reasons. First and foremost, the Rebels’ best players made big plays. Bo Wallace protected the ball and hit his throws after halftime.
Laquon Treadwwell made big catches in spite of tight coverage, and Evan Engram, Cody Core and Vince Sanders had key grabs too. They made catches that were beyond normal. They made catches with some degree of difficulty.
There were a couple of drops, and Wallace a couple of times missed open guys — a slant to Core comes to mind — but there were some tough plays made in the passing game.
There were good calls too. Hugh Freeze said he noticed something in the first half that he thought would work in the second. The go-ahead touchdown pass to Jaylen Walton was wide open. He slipped out of the backfield, and nobody picked him up.
There might have been more symmetry in the passing game had there been more effective running. That was the central theme of my Thursday post, but let’s face it. Alabama had the league’s leading run defense going into the game. It was going to be tough to get much done on the ground against the Tide. The Rebels didn’t run much, averaging only 2.2 yards with 72 net yards on 32 attempts.
Ole Miss made strides in the run game last week against Memphis, and I don’t think today’s game means last week’s improvement wasn’t real. I suspect the Rebels will have some success on the ground at Texas A&M which went into today’s games ranked No. 10 in rushing defense.
It looked to me like Wallace was intent on being more involved in the run game. He hasn’t shown that a lot this year, and Freeze implied that this was Wallace’s decision, that Freeze actually encouraged him to run but didn’t call it.
Wallace isn’t fast but is athletic, and if he can pick his spots and do some of the things he did the last two years when he rushed for a combined 745 yards and 14 touchdowns that would be a big lift for the offense.
Defensively the Rebels were really good against a very good offense. Alabama has a lot of weapons and put up 672 yards on a Florida defense that today held Tennessee to 236 yards and nine points.
Alabama was able to move the chains against Ole Miss but was unable to consistently drive the length of the field and score touchdowns. The Tide’s offense got in the end zone just once. In five games now the Ole Miss defense has given up just three touchdowns.
I thought there was really inspired play by the DL interior with Byron Bennett, Issac Gross and Robert Nkemdiche.
Two elite wide receivers in Treadwell and Amari Cooper pretty much cancelled each other out. Cooper had more catches, because Lane Kiffin is less inclined to spread the ball around to the supporting cast unlike Freeze. Cooper had nine catches for 91 yards but didn’t get in the end zone. Treadwell had five catches for 55 yards and a 14-yard touchdown in the middle of the third quarter.
The bottom line is I’ve seen Ole Miss teams in the past make enough plays to lose a game like that. Watching them make the plays to win against a top 10 team — the Wallace touchdowns, the forced fumble by Channing Ward, the Senquez Golson interception — is something I haven’t seen as often.
I know there’s a defeatist mindset that I hear from a lot of fans. It goes something like, “That’s the most Ole Miss thing ever …” or something of that nature.
There has been a lot of coming close and not getting over the hump with various coaches through the years. I don’t want to pin that history on this staff. What they do with this win remains to be seen. You won’t get the true value of a signature victory like this unless you back it up with more wins.
The 1977 Ole Miss team beat Notre Dame but lost its next three games beginning with Southern Miss in Oxford the following week.
Ole Miss will face a talented but embarrassed Texas A&M team Saturday in College Station. Frankly, I’ve seen enough of the Aggies the last two weeks to think they could be vulnerable, but they’ll be at home, and they’ll be angered and intent on proving they’re not as bad as they showed in Starkville.
The real value of the Alabama win only comes by having a say-so in the division. That may not mean winning at A&M, but it does mean playing with consistency and staying in the thick of things throughout the regular season.
As tough as the SEC West is this team showed today that it can play with the division’s best teams.