By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Breaking off a long run in a home game was nice, but for I’Tavius Mathers, whose time on stage has only recently increased, the bowl game was much better.
Mathers ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run late in the Rebels’ 38-17 win over Pittsburgh, the final act of dominance in a Rebels’ ground game that produced 224 yards even with starting tailback Jeff Scott sidelined much of the day.
“I still like the bowl game run,” Mathers said. “I’ll take that one (against Idaho) too.”
Scott has been sidelined the last couple of weeks. Mathers and Jaylen Walton have shouldered a much heavier load, and the Ole Miss ground game had rebranded itself.
While Scott had become Mr. Outside, burning defenses by getting to edge before they adjusted and made the sweeps more difficult, two young sophomores and an improving offensive line have sparked Ole Miss between the tackles.
Walton stands only 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds. He’s lined up in the slot as a receiver and caught a 50-yard touchdown pass against Texas A&M but says his best work is done on the inside.
“For my size, running between the tackles is what I try to work on, and that’s where most of my big runs come from,” Walton said.
One of those was a 40-yard burst up the middle last Saturday after an early failed fourth down attempt by the Vandals. Walton made them pay on the next play.
Scott says vision is his primary asset in bouncing off contact in spite of his diminutive stature.
“The key is vision. If you’re running fast to the pylon, and somebody had an angle, you can give them a shoulder and become physical to them. There are a lot of ways you can avoid defenders. I use my vision and keep my feet moving.”
Combining their names – Mathers and Walton – has the sound of a morning radio show. They’ve been linked together as the young guys since arriving on campus from Tennessee – Mathers from Murfreesboro and Walton from Memphis – as freshmen last year.
The last two games the Mathers and Walton Show has helped produce 468 rushing yards with 292 against Idaho, 176 against LSU.
Scott is getting healthier, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has promised a closer look in practice for freshman Mark Dodson, who was impressive in late-game duty against the Vandals with 54 yards on seven carries and a 30-yard touchdown run with a short pass.
The picture at running back could be changing.
It was the final game of his debut season before Freeze felt like his recruiting evaluations of both players – Mathers at 5-11, 189 is the larger – and Walton were on the money.
Both got some touches in the pre-conference schedule as freshmen, but their opportunities declined sharply with the coming of conference play.
“Jaylen and I’Tavius last year in the bowl game showed me, ‘OK, they’re what I think they could be,’” Freeze said. “I probably didn’t know that exactly before then, but I’ve had no reason to doubt it since then.”
What the immediate future holds for running back remains to be seen. For now, Mathers and Walton are both happy to be able to produce when needed most.
“I’ve been telling myself it’s time to step up,” Mathers said. “Me and Jaylen have been doing a pretty good job of that.”