OXFORD – Two minutes after the fact, Greg Hardy called it the best game of his college career. Two years after the fact, he wasn’t so sure.
He laughed loudly, when asked if his 13-tackle performance against Alabama two years ago was the best he’s been. “I don’t know, that’s for you guys to decide. I’m not a critic, I just play football.”
If Hardy, a senior defensive end, plays the kind of football today that he did against the Crimson Tide in 2007, No. 20 Ole Miss (3-1, 1-1 SEC) could pull of an upset win against No. 3 Alabama (5-0, 2-0).
Kickoff is 2:30 p.m., and the game will be televised nationally by CBS.
It wasn’t just the tackles that made it a great day for Hardy. It was big play after big play.
He had five tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two quarterback pressures. He tackled the Alabama holder on a fake field goal attempt to set up the Rebels’ ill-fated final drive, which included a 41-yard completion to Shay Hodge wiped out after a questionable interpretation of video replay. Alabama won 27-24.
One thing that allowed Hardy to compete at such a high level that day was good health. His 2008 season was marked by lingering issues from a stress fracture in his foot sustained in preseason. After two surgeries and a frightening summer car wreck, Hardy was ready for the season opener. It didn’t last long. He suffered a sprained ankle on a crackback block by Memphis wide receiver Duke Calhoun. That caused him to miss the next game and amped up his familiar training room routine.
Now Hardy reminisces about his health for that 2007 game.
“I felt great. I guess the reason a lot of people say it was one of my best games, quote unquote, is because I was 100 percent. It’s an honest fact when you say Greg Hardy hasn’t been healthy a lot in my four years of being here. I just felt good. Hopefully I can come back with a purpose this week.”
Hardy is not an every-down player this year, but he plays on almost every third down and in obvious passing situations. He still finds his way to the ball.
With only five tackles, three have been for loss, and two are sacks. He’s broken up two passes, notched two quarterback pressures and recovered a fumble.
His weight has increased some 25 pounds to 275, something he hopes will help him become a more complete player.
“I’ve trained myself and adjusted my game so that I can do everything instead of just coming in to pass rush,” Hardy said. “I need to be be a full and total player instead of people saying I can’t play the run. I have to have a complete game, a total package.”
While that is of course true, Hardy’s greatest asset today could be his pass rush. Few teams have pressure first-year Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, and he’s responded in the efficient manner that goes along with lack of stress.
McElroy has been sacked just five times behind a rebuilt offensive line. In the process he’s completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards, nine touchdowns and only one interception.
If McElroy was running for governor of Alabama it would be on a conservative platform.
I want to be known as a smart passer. I don’t want to take risks. Those risks are sometimes are able to be made, but most times they’re not,” he said. “Protecting the ball is something I’ve always made a priority. It’s something coach Saban expects.”
Today’s game at a glance
– Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford
– Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.
– Television: CBS
– Radio: Ole Miss network; XM channel 194; Sirius channel 217
– Records: Ole Miss 3-1, 1-1 SEC; Alabama 5-0, 2-0 SEC
n Rankings: Ole Miss is No. 20 by the Associated Press, No. 16 by the coaches; Alabama is No. 3 in both polls.
– Series: Alabama leads 45-9-2
– Coaches – Alabama: Nick Saban 115-50-1 (14th year); Ole Miss Houston Nutt 123-75 (17th year)
– Statistical leaders – Alabama: QB Greg McElroy 78-119-1 1,086 yards, 9 TDs passing; RB Mark Ingram 83-487 6 TDs rushing; WR Colin Peek 14-160, 1 TD receiving; LB Ryan McClain 35 tackles. Ole Miss: QB Jevan Snead 54-105-5 728 yards, 1 TD passing; RB Brandon Bolden 48-297 1 TD rushing; WR Shay Hodge 17-269 3 TD receiving; SS Johnny Brown 29 tackles, 1 INT.
Trends: Alabama has won five straight in the series. … The last four games have been decided by an average margin of 3.25 points.
– Notes: Fullback Andy Hartmann (knee) has missed the last two games but is expected to be available in some role. … Ole Miss is second in the SEC in scoring defense at 10.8 points a game. … Alabama is second in the SEC and the NCAA in total defense at 222.2 yards per game allowed.
– Summing it up: “Games like this bring out the best in everybody … managers, fans, trainers, coaches, players. If you have that competitive spirit there’s nothing like getting ready for a ballgame like this.” – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt
Prediction: Alabama 19, Ole Miss 17
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal