COMPASS BOWL: Rebels, Panthers collide today – legally

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Ole Miss safety Trae Elston has 56 tackles this season, a solid showing for a freshman.
His six passes broken up rank second on the team, and he’s appeared in 11 games.
It’s the game in which he did not appear that made him one of the Rebels’ most recognizable names.
Elston served a one-game suspension against Texas for what the SEC judged an illegal hit against a defenseless UTEP receiver.
Elston was eligible the week following the Texas game. He made his first start against Tulane and went on to start seven more games.
Ole Miss take on Pittsburgh at noon today in the BBVA Compass Bowl, the 33rd game of the bowl season that like the regular season had a number of hard hits magnified by television cameras. Some of them were flagged, some were not. All generated discussion.
“I listen to announcers during the game and I don’t think they’re exactly accurate all the time,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
Interpretation of the rule and application of the penalties during the game and afterward by suspension if deemed necessary is not a cut and dried process.

OTHER HITS VIEWED
Only Elston and South Carolina defensive back D.J. Swearinger were suspended by the league though a number of other hits were scrutinized, most notably the above-theshoulder hit by Alabama defensive lineman Quinton Dial on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in the SEC championship game.
Murray had just thrown an interception and was trotting toward the sideline.
He was totally unaware of Dial when he took a helmet square in the jaw.
The rule prohibits hits above the shoulders of a “defenseless” opponent.
Freeze has the rule memorized but says there are too many variables to make application consistent.
That makes it difficult to teach players a proper response.
“It’s turned into an offensive game,” Ole Miss cornerback Charles Sawyer said. “There are so many rules to it, contact on the field, contact going to the ball. Sometimes the offense gets more privileges than the defense. You just have to realize what the rules are and play your game.”

JUDGMENT CALL
Sometimes angles change while a play is on-going.
“It’s about a defenseless player. It’s not a guy running the football. He’s not defenseless,” Freeze said. “So when those levels change and there’s helmet to helmet contact, as I understand it, that’s not anything illegal.”
Freeze believes his players understand the rule but also believes another Elston-like hit is inevitable.
The last such hit for Ole Miss was from Denzel Nkemdiche against LSU quarterback Mettenberger.
It cost the Rebels 15 yards on LSU’s game-winning drive.
Today the Rebels face a Pitt offense that has given up just one turnover in its last seven games. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown just two interceptions all season.
The Panthers lead the Big East and are 12th nationally in turnover margin at plus-1.0 per game.
Against such a disciplined offense coaches want an aggressive defense.
Elston doesn’t believe his suspension caused him to be less physical on the field, but he says it’s harder to play the position he loves.
“When I was little I was taught to just go hit them.
Now you have to watch how you do things. You have to be more cautious,” he said.
parrish.alford@journalinc.com

BBVA Compass Bowl Preview Capsule
The Associated Press

Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Ole Miss (6-6), Noon CST (ESPN)

Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

Line: Ole Miss by 3 1/2.

Series record: First meeting.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Ole Miss, which finished 2-10 in 2011, is trying to cap its strong turnaround under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels are playing for their first winning season since 2009. Pitt closed its regular season with wins over No. 21 Rutgers and South Florida and also is playing for a winning season with its first-year coach, Paul Chryst.

KEY MATCHUP

Ole Miss freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche vs. Pitt running back Ray Graham. Nkemdiche leads the Rebels with 78 tackles, including 12 for losses, four forced fumbles and three interceptions. Graham, a 5-foot-9 senior, leads the Panthers with 1,042 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Pittsburgh: Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri threw 19 touchdown passes with only two interceptions. He ranked second in the nation by throwing an interception in only 0.6 percent of his attempts. He passed for 3,103 yards.

Ole Miss: Sophomore wide receiver Donte Moncrief has 334 yards receiving with five touchdowns in his last two games. He had only two 100-yard games in his first 10 games of the season. Moncrief’s strong finish left him tied for the Ole Miss record with 10 TD catches.

FACTS & FIGURES

Pitt is appearing in its fifth straight bowl, including its third straight BBVA Compass Bowl. The Panthers beat Kentucky 27-10 two years ago and lost to SMU 28-6 last season. … Ole Miss is 21-12 all-time in bowl games, with wins in eight of its last nine. … The Panthers took No. 1 Notre Dame to triple overtime before losing. … Graham was named a first-team all-Big East player for the second straight year. … Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace scored as a passer, rusher and receiver this season. He passed for 2,843 yards with 19 touchdowns, ran for 363 yards with eight touchdowns and also scored on a 25-yard reception. … Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald led the Big East with 18.5 tackles for losses. He had 5.5 sacks and led Pitt with 11 quarterback hurries. … Pitt ranks 21st in the nation with its average of 19.67 points allowed and 16th in allowing only 325.83 yards per game. … Freeze inherited a team that had lost 14 consecutive Southeastern Conference games and led the Rebels to three conference wins.