By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Sometimes bowl games bring out something different. Saturday afternoon, before an overwhelmingly pro-Ole Miss crowd, the Rebels benefitted from the unexpected.
The Rebels’ defense forced turnovers from a Pittsburgh offense that ranked among the nation’s best at protecting the football, and Ole Miss rode the early momentum of a 14-0 lead to a 38-17 win in front of a BBVA Compass Bowl record 59,135 fans at Legion Field.
It wasn’t only about turnovers for the Ole Miss defense, as the Rebels (7-6) held the Panthers (6-7) to just 4 yards in the third quarter and 266 for the game.
Pitt was playing without thousand-yard rusher Ray Graham, whose absence was a game-day decision by first-year coach Paul Chryst.
Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry was all over the field, his sack causing a fumble in the first half, and he finished with four tackles for loss and seven tackles total.
Among the unexpected for the Rebels was the fact that Randall Mackey and Jaylen Walton were the workhorse running backs, not Jeff Scott, who sustained a hamstring injury during the game.
“This was a great first bowl game for our journey at Ole Miss, and it will always have a special place in my memory,” said first-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. “I did not know if we would get to a bowl or not, but I knew we would attack each week as a challenge.”
What wasn’t new was the performance of game MVP Bo Wallace, who threw three touchdown passes and completed 22 of 32 attempts for 151 yards.
He threw two interceptions – also not new – to finish with 17 for the year.
“I played OK, nothing crazy,” Wallace said. “I felt like we were in a good rhythm at the start of the game. Then I had the two interceptions and had to bounce back.”
Wallace’s first pick set up Pitt inside the Ole Miss 30 and led to a 10-yard scoring pass from Tino Sunseri to Devin Street to make it 14-7 with 7 minutes, 13 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Panthers’ next touchdown came with 2:23 left against a mix of Ole Miss reserves who haven’t seen much action this season.
Pitt had turned the ball over once in its last seven games, but the Rebels forced two in the first half.
One they cashed in, as Wallace hit Ja-Mes Logan with a 14-yard slant on third down.
The Rebels followed that up with a 10-play, 72-yard drive capped by Wallace’s 27-yard pass to Randall Mackey for a 14-0 lead.
After a 49-yard kick return by Walton, the Rebels were at the Pitt 48 and jumped into the tempo offense to answer on Wallace’s 18-yard pass to Vincent Sanders, who slipped a tackle near the line of scrimmage and got in the end zone.
“When coach Freeze went tempo it settled me down a little bit. That’s what I’m comfortable in,” Wallace said. “Once we went tempo I fell back into rhythm.”
Brunetti runs in
There was more Barry Brunetti in the second half after Wallace took a hit on a 7-yard rush early in the third. Wallace dashed to the locker room to have his eye checked.
Brunetti scored on a 1-yard run with 21 seconds left in the third, capping a 10-play, 48-yard drive. The only points of the period gave Ole Miss a three-touchdown lead to carry into the fourth.
While there was more Brunetti, there was more Ole Miss defense too as Pitt was held to 4 yards in the quarter.
Freshman I’Tavius Mathers scored on a 62-yard run with 8:48 left, allowing the Rebels to cruise to the finish.
“We knew they were going to be up-tempo most of the game,” Pitt safety Jarred Holley said. “They came ready to play and did a great job.”