OXFORD – Houston Nutt says he’s seen a lot of good things from his football team. But SEC play begins this week, and Nutt wants to see the good things more often.
Second-half lapses against Jacksonville State and Tulane caused the Ole Miss coach to issue a challenge to a defense that spent a summer basking in accolades from college football media: “I want our defense to play their best game this week.”
The Rebels (1-1) open conference play in the SEC Network television game at 11:20 Saturday morning against Vanderbilt (0-2).
The Commodores lost 27-3 to LSU last week but trailed just 10-3 after three quarters.
Ole Miss bounced back from its stunning loss to Division I-AA Jacksonville State, but some of the same problems that hurt the Rebels against the Gamecocks were evident in a 27-13 win over Tulane.
Twice the Rebels have had three-touchdown leads at halftime, but opponents in the second half have completed 30 of 40 passes for 289 yards in two touchdowns.
That doesn’t include Jacksonville State’s overtime heroics. The Gamecocks completed a 30-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-15 in the second overtime to set up their winning 2-point conversion.
“I want our defense to get lined up right every snap, be sound tacklers, use their eyes correctly in the secondary and play the ball right,” Nutt said. “They’re on the field too long in the third quarter. Guys are keeping drives alive with a play here or a play there, and we’ve got to be more consistent, especially in the SEC.”
Ole Miss was 15th in the nation in pass defense efficiency last year, but in two games the Rebels have not intercepted a pass, and opponents have a completion rate of 65.6 percent.
While the Rebels are second in the SEC with seven sacks, pressure in the backfield has been inconsistent. Last year, Ole Miss had 15 tackles for loss through two games and went on to lead the SEC with an average of 7.4.
They’ve recorded 11 in the first two games.
Senior linebacker Allen Walker says his coach is on the mark.
“I expected us to be a lot better than we’ve been. I think we need to step it up,” he said. “It’s going to be on the front seven to do this, because we have the most experience. Everybody has to do their job. On defense, when one guy makes a mistake, there’s always a gap that’s open.”
– Jeremiah Masoli will be the Rebels’ starting quarterback this week, but where Nathan Stanley fits into the picture is unclear.
Masoli was 14 for 20 passing for 281 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Tulane. Stanley had been limited by shoulder soreness during the week and played only one series.
Stanley had big numbers against Jacksonville State, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions, but Masoli is more elusive than Stanley, and that’s important given the current state of the offensive line.
“I still believe in Nathan, but we’ll start Jeremiah,” Nutt said. “He gives us more athletic ability back there when things break down.”
Nutt also said playing just one quarterback helps with “flow and chemistry.”
– The offensive line will have a different starter at right guard for the third-straight week.
After junior Rishaw Johnson was dismissed last Thursday, third-year sophomore Josh Tatum was thrust into the starting role.
Tatum sustained a sprained ankle against Tulane and is not expected to play this week, moving redshirt freshman Michael Brown into the lineup.
“I have to get ready. I don’t have a choice. It’s do or die,” Brown said. “My teammates have to depend on me, and I will be held accountable. I have to get it done.”
Brown got in the game at Tulane but just for a handful of snaps. His backup is true freshman Jared Duke. Duke spent some time running with the second team in camp but was ultimately bumped down after sustaining a concussion.
“I don’t think it’s back to square one, but there will be some learning curve there when you break in someone who is brand new,” Nutt said.
Young CBs coming on
– Nutt cited the play of his young defensive backs, most notably Charles Sawyer, a redshirt freshman, who had 10 tackles against the Green Wave.
Though Sawyer did not break up a pass, Nutt thinks he has some younger players getting ready to contribute. Another to keep an eye on is true freshman Tony Grimes, who got his first college action last week, entering the game in the second half.
Sawyer caught the staff’s attention in the spring and in camp and is generally regarded as the third corner. Senior Jeremy McGee and junior Marcus Temple, the starters, have helped him along.
“They just tell me to keep my head on straight and do what I have to do with my assignments. Once you do your part, everything else work out,” Sawyer said.
Nutt says Grimes, who finished with one solo tackle, is “fighting for playing time.”
Nutt on Grimes: “When Ty (Nix) sent him in, I try to be close to see how they react, and he didn’t flinch. He has quick feet, and I love how aggressive he is. He will get more and more time if he keeps working the way he’s been working.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal