By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Respect, courtesy and good manners are traits that will make Jared Duke’s mother proud, but they sure weren’t helping his football team.
Duke and his teammates along the Ole Miss offensive line knew it had fallen to them to revive the Rebels’ sagging run game.
And doing that meant they should no longer play nice with others.
“We were being challenged by our coaches and challenged by our teammates. We had to be more physical. It’s something we had to do,” Duke said.
The best run games impose their will at the point of attack, but the Rebels were missing something in that area.
Early in the season, Ole Miss was among the top rushing teams in the SEC due in large part to Jeff Scott’s speed on the outside and the downfield blocking of its wide receivers.
When teams began to play the Rebels differently in the run game, Scott was able to get to the edge much less often.
After rushing for 272 yards at Texas, Ole Miss gained only 46 yards on the ground at Alabama. The Rebels rushed for 124 yards at Auburn, but without one 53-yard run by Scott they averaged just 3.26 yards per attempt.
“We had to get more physical and play with a nastier attitude,” said Emmanuel McCray, who has lined up at tackle, guard and tight end this season. “Mostly it’s guys inside playing lower and being dirty.”
Scott has been limited by a thigh bruise the last two weeks and didn’t play at all against LSU.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has run behind his line’s new attitude, and the Rebels have experienced success with inside running that was missing earlier in the season.
Physicality is a mindset and isn’t achieved by simply flipping a switch. Duke and McCray said offensive line coach Matt Luke stressed lower pad level with the group, and the Rebels spent a lot of time in the chutes, a practice drill aimed at keeping players from rising during the play.
A Louisiana writer this week asked Freeze if he intentionally called more power runs against LSU.
“I’d say if you compare our films the answer would be yes, that we did run more inside,” he responded. “It’s something we always carry. We haven’t done as much of it. People had been playing us differently.”
Improvement began against Texas A&M when the Rebels attacked the inside and rushed for 133 yards.
Against the Tigers, Ole Miss ran the ball on more than half of its 84 plays and totaled 176 yards on 43 attempts.
Ole Miss began its game-winning drive from its 15-yard line. Once the Rebels reached their 39, Freeze called six runs on the seven plays leading to Andrew Ritter’s 41-yard game-winning field goal. The big one was Mathers’ 12-yard gain off the left side on second-and-3 from the LSU 42.
“The offensive line did excellent. I think this was their best game of blocking,” said Jaylen Walton, who rushed for a career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns.
The Rebels will try to continue their trend of improvement – and nastiness – Saturday night against an Idaho defense ranked No. 109 against the run with 219.4 yards per game allowed.
“After the Auburn game we were more upset with ourselves,” Duke said. “We knew that wasn’t an acceptable effort.”