By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – “If it is to be, it starts with me.”
Or some variation of that, at least, is how Ole Miss defensive lineman Ted Laurent approaches the Rebels’ SEC game at No. 21 Arkansas this week.
The Rebels are trying to get back on the winning track after last week’s 23-10 loss at No. 8 Alabama, trying to get on a track the leads to six wins and bowl eligibility.
A bowl game seemed a foregone conclusion for Arkansas this season. Many picked the Razorbacks, with strong-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett, to compete for the SEC West title.
The Razorbacks (4-2, 1-2 SEC), however, were on the short end of an historic 65-43 shootout at Auburn last week. Another loss would drop them to 1-3 in the league, and having it come at the hands of former coach Houston Nutt would no doubt make it further distasteful.
In the ultimate team game, Laurent has shouldered the ultimate responsibility – victory.
When Ole Miss defeated Arkansas 30-17 in Oxford last year the Rebels were successful in disrupting Mallett. They sacked him twice, broke up passes, bothered him many other times. Mallett finished 12 for 34 passing.
Mallett sustained a concussion in the first half of the Auburn game but has practiced this week and will start today’s game.
“He’s a great quarterback, one of the best in the SEC, probably a top 10 draft pick,” Laurent said. “We know the game is on us, on the defensive line. We have to put pressure on him.”
That’s where the matchup gets tricky as neither team has a clear edge. Statistically, the Rebels have been average in reaching the quarterback, the Razorbacks average in protecting theirs.
The Rebels are fourth in the SEC in sacks with 2.83 per game but just ninth against SEC teams, recording six through four games. Four of them were last week against Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy.
“We got off to a slow start this year with our pass rush, but we got better. We never put our heads down. We’ve kept fighting and kept working, and it’s coming along,” Laurent said.
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix agrees.
“I thought we were better. I thought we made him look uncomfortable at times.”
Nix said the key to the Rebels’ success against Mallett last season was “relentless effort.”
“Our backs covered well enough, and they dropped some balls in some situations. We were fortunate to out-perform them on that day,” Nix said.
He is hoping the Rebels will out-perform the Razorbacks again. The Arkansas offensive line is seventh in the SEC in sacks allowed, giving up 1.83 per game. The Razorbacks also lead the SEC in pass attempts.
Nutt believes the Rebels’ defensive effort at Alabama is the beginning of improvement. He called it their best effort of the year.
Ole Miss held up well against the run as well as the pass, holding Alabama to 100 yards on the ground – 2.9 yards per rush – and 319 yards overall.
The Razorbacks run game isn’t the challenge this week. Mallett leads the SEC in passing yards (307.3 ypg) and passing touchdowns (14) and is third in completion percentage (69.1).
What catches Nix’s attention more than anything else is Mallett’s big-play potential. Though he had only 12 completions in Oxford last year, Mallett passed for 254 yards – 21.1 yards per completion. Currently, he leads the SEC in completions of 25-plus yards with 16.
It’s possible to put the Arkansas offense in a deep hole, but Mallett is capable of covering lots of ground quickly.
“Pass rush is critical against any quarterback,” Nix said. “You have to have pressure from a four-man rush, a three-man rush and blitz when necessary. We have to have all 11 players on the same page, 11 guys playing with high intensity and high motors.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600