OXFORD – The glut of national attention for Ole Miss football in August, followed by the Rebels’ falling stock in autumn, has caused a different sort of evaluation for head coach Houston Nutt.
Instead of looking ahead, he’s looking behind, at least somewhat.
“When you’ve been losing, four straight losing seasons before last year, it’s easy to get back in that cycle. What’s so important is that they stay together, stay positive and let us help with this thing through,” Nutt said Saturday in the wake of the Rebels’ 22-3 loss to No. 3 Alabama, a loss that made a school-first SEC championship game berth improbable.
Attitude for a program that had won just six SEC games in the previous four seasons was the biggest hurdle Nutt faced in 2008.
The Rebels responded to one of their most difficult defeats – a six-turnover home loss to Vanderbilt – with a stunning 31-30 win at No. 4 Florida. Even that victory, however, was followed by a home loss to South Carolina.
“At this time last year, we really didn’t know what we had. Especially after the Vanderbilt game, I didn’t know what to expect. We were still trying to feel our way,” Nutt said.
That meant working through some old habits and an acceptance of losing.
The team’s older players remember going through the 2007 season without an SEC win. There was a euphoric feeling around the program when the Rebels not only gained bowl eligibility but broke in at the Cotton Bowl level.
Bowl eligibility this year will require seven overall wins, not just six, because there are two FCS (the former Division I-AA) teams on the schedule.
“We’ve got a lot of guys now who know what winning is like,” senior defensive end Marcus Tillman said. “We know we have to keep fighting, and we’ll get a break somewhere.”
There are younger players on the team, Nutt’s recruits, who know what winning is like but may not appreciate the sacrifice necessary to achieve it consistently.
Not all the key roles are filled by inherited players, as Nutt’s recruits begin to infiltrate the two-deep roster. That’s where the example of Tillman and other player leadership is so important.
They’re intent on avoiding a backward step.
No going back?
“The leadership on this team is too strong,” sophomore tailback Brandon Bolden said. “Guys like Kendrick Lewis and John Jerry are not going to let that happen. They don’t want to go back to the Coach O days that they remember.”
While the leadership and the want-to are strong, the chemistry may be challenged in a couple of areas.
Nutt encourages his players to ignore outside influences and to guard against becoming a “lockerroom lawyer” and dispensing self-serving advice.
However, when there’s a disparity in production between offense and defense division can take root.
Ole Miss got what coaches felt was a winning effort from the defense against the Crimson Tide, but the offense was plagued by turnovers and breakdowns at other positions.
Ole Miss had 14 possessions against Alabama. Only two of them lasted more than six plays, and the Rebels committed five turnovers.
Nutt praised the production of his offense the previous week against Vanderbilt, and pointed out the overall strength of the Alabama defense.
There was not an aspect of the offense that he didn’t find troubling Saturday, pointing out breakdowns from the offensive line and running backs, route-running from the wide receivers and the more visible play of quarterback Jevan Snead.
Snead’s trust of his offensive line has been questioned, but center Daverin Geralds says there is “mutual respect” between Snead and his linemen.
“There’s a good relationship between us and Jevan,” center Daverin Geralds said. “He gets on us if he doesn’t have enough time in the pocket, but if he holds the ball too long and takes a hit he’ll say, “That’s plays on me.’ We have a mutual respect for one another.”
Nutt says his defensive players have done a good job of helping avoid division between the units.
“When we lost Saturday it was the Ole Miss Rebels who lost,” junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. “It wasn’t that the offense lost and the defense won. We need offense, defense and special teams. Then you add it all together, and you have the Ole Miss Rebels.”
Citing a three-loss Arkansas team that reached in Atlanta in 2002, Lockett says all goals are still on the table for Ole Miss, including the Western Division championship.
Nutt’s Arkansas teams had a history of playing well in late October and November. That was true for his first Ole Miss team, and those are resume points he wants them to see as he tries to rally the 2009 team from a 1-2 SEC start.
“It’s important that our guys not listen to other people, that they come back and go to work and get better,” Nutt said. “There’s still a lot of football left. I still feel like we can have a really good team this year.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal