By PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal
In celebrating a win of great significance on Saturday, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt first had to reflect on a much more disturbing time.
Only now, perhaps, can the loss to Jacksonville State be put to bed.
“That first game, you don’t realize how devastating it was to our team,” Nutt said. “I didn’t tell anybody, but y’all know.”
So it’s taken five weeks to … perhaps … get past the Gamecocks, five weeks for a defense to make crucial plays, for an offense to play turnover-free and to not hurt itself with penalties, to play a complete football game.
Make no mistake, the Ole Miss defense hasn’t arrived. It doesn’t dominate the way many thought it would when the season began, and in the last two games the Rebels are a first down away from giving up 700 passing yards.
It hasn’t “arrived,” but the Rebels are starting to make plays within the game, and Saturday they forced meaningful turnovers for the first time.
“I saw some good things with our defense. We’re still not there, but we’re continuing to improve,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said.
The Rebels are continuing to drop like flies too – defensive backs Brishen Matthews, Marcus Temple and Charles Sawyer all sustained concussions Saturday – but that may be part of coming together.
Junior college transfer safety Damien Jackson looks around now and knows it’s him or nobody else.
“We’re not going to try and force an interception and give up a touchdown, but the turnovers, I love those turnovers,” he said. “Coach preaches turnovers, turnover, turnovers. It’s our fault we hadn’t had any.”
Jackson had nine tackles, forced a fumble and recovered it, and delivered licks with a comfort level he had not felt since Gulf Coast Community College last year.
The freshman Matthews, getting playing time because starting strong safety Johnny Brown was already out, delivered a blow with such force that he knocked himself out of the game.
The Ole Miss defense hasn’t arrived, but at least its moving forward. Playing against better receivers the Rebels broke up six passes, twice as many as a week ago against Fresno State.
They’re still holding up against the run, even without Kentrell Lockett at one end. Kentucky tailback Derrick Locke was held to 68 yards on 19 carries, 50 yards below his average.
For Nix the work progresses. The pieces and parts move in out of the training room, and maybe the bye week will fix some of that.
Through five games, at least, the defenders can take a breath and regroup. The offense has had their backs.
It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been pretty, and at 3-2 the Rebels are a step behind – maybe two – of where they’d thought they’d be after five games.
But since Jacksonville State they’ve rallied to some degree. The win over Kentucky clinched nothing, nothing but opportunity.
The real heavyweights are still out in front on the schedule, but with seven games left and a win over Kentucky in pocket, a 3-2 mark gives the Rebels a manageable path to bowl-eligibility.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.