MEMPHIS – If Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt had played things any closer to the vest in the first half, he’d have been scratching his back.
The No. 8 Rebels set the tone with their defense in the first half then hit a stride on offense in the second and thrashed Memphis 45-14 in the season opener for both teams Sunday before 45,207 fans at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Quarterback Jevan Snead threw two interceptions in the first half when he was just 5-for-12 for 74 yards.
But Snead got going late and threw touchdown passes to Markeith Summers and Dexter McCluster as Ole Miss pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Until that time Ole Miss guarded the front porch with defense.
Memphis receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton, the No. 3 wide receiver tandem in the country with 33 career touchdown receptions, never found the end zone. They combined for eight catches and 80 yards.
The secondary contributed big plays all day, none bigger than a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown by backup free safety Fon Ingram with 41 seconds left in the first half.
That gave the Rebels a 17-7 advantage at the break.
“Our defense … our defense was outstanding,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “We missed some tackles we normally don’t miss, but we kept pressure on the quarterback and kept him off balance.”
Safeties Johnny Brown and Kendrick Lewis combined for 24 tackles, 15 of them by Brown, a junior taking over for Jamarca Sanford.
Brown and end Marcus Tillman were credited with the stop against running back Curtis Steele on fourth-and-1 from the Ole Miss 43 on the third play of the fourth quarter. It was a 17-7 game at the time.
The Rebels took over and drove 57 yards in five plays to make it 24-7. Brandon Bolden, who had 71 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, had a 28-yard run on the drive, and Dexter McCluster got the points on a 1-yard run.
Memphis answered with an eight-play, 80-yard drive, cutting the deficit to 10 points on Curtis Steele’s 5-yard run, but the Tigers (1-0) couldn’t stop the Rebels (0-1) late in the game.
“We missed some tackles, but those are things we can correct,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “I thought we rotated people and kept them fresh. We only had one sack, but we had pressure, and sometimes that’s just as good as a sack.”
Steele’s cut-back ability and yards after contact hurt the Rebels, but the running game is not Memphis’ strength.
Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall was unable to get going through the air, going 15-for-30 with two interceptions and a fumble.
“I didn’t do my job and turned the ball over. Those are the critical mistakes coach (Tommy) West doesn’t want us to make,” said Hall, whose turnovers led to 14 points.
The Rebels drove to the Memphis 9 with their first possession before stalling and settling for a 27-yard field goal by Joshua Shene and a 3-0 lead.
They capitalized on a short field with a 26-yard drive and a 1-yard touchdown run by Bolden later in the first. The 10-0 lead was set up by a 15-yard punt return by Marshay Green after Memphis went three-and-out from its 20.
With a chance to lay the hammer down in the first half, Snead was picked off twice in the second quarter, once by Deante Lamar, leading to a 2-yard touchdown run by Steele, and later by Darius Davis.
Snead called both interceptions “dumb” and said he was trying to force things.
The Rebels didn’t throw downfield much in the first half, as Nutt stuck to the ground game due in part to concerns about protection with a new left tackle in sophomore Bradley Sowell.
When Ole Miss did try to pass more later, Sowell was beaten badly on a couple of third-quarter plays by Memphis end Jada Brown, once for a sack when the Rebels had a third-and-9 from the Memphis 33. Nutt said Sowell was dehydrated at the time, and there was question as to whether he’d go in for that series.
“Yeah, I was little reluctant to throw early,” Nutt said. “Every time I had in my mind, ‘OK, let’s make a first down, and then we’ll throw … But we never got to that point.’ We were off balance and out of rhythm.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal