OXFORD — Ole Miss wasn’t expected to have an incredible football team this season after losing multiple star players to the NFL.
Still, it’s safe to say nobody at Ole Miss envisioned a two-touchdown home loss to Vanderbilt or a shocking double-overtime loss to Jacksonville State.
But that’s the reality as Mississippi (1-2) prepares to host Fresno State (2-0) this weekend at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi coach Houston Nutt isn’t panicking, but also acknowledges the Rebels have a myriad of problems to fix, including a dysfunctional offensive line, stagnant running game and a defense that’s prone to giving up big plays.
“Anybody can let go of the rope and say that it’s someone else’s fault,” Nutt said. “It’s about maintaining a believing attitude. I really believe in these guys and I’m going to let them know that every single day when they hit the field. You either get better or you get worse.”
Fresno State won’t be an easy win. The Bulldogs, led by veteran coach Pat Hill, have beaten Cincinnati and Utah State this season and have a reputation for knocking off top programs across the country.
The Rebels were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference Western Division this season by the media — not exactly shocking. They lost the majority of their offense from last season, including running back Dexter McCluster, who was the only player in SEC history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a single season.
But that was before veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli transferred from Oregon to Ole Miss. He’s considered one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation and accounted for 51 touchdowns over two seasons with the Ducks, leading them to the Rose Bowl in 2009.
But at Oregon he was surrounded by top-tier talent. At Ole Miss, he’s often been on his own as a young offensive line and running game struggle to contribute.
Masoli has completed 40 of 65 passes (61.5 percent) for 580 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 160 yards and two scores. But he’s also thrown four interceptions, including one against Vanderbilt that was returned for a touchdown.
“He did alright the first couple of games,” Nutt said. “In this last game, we would have liked him to take care of the ball more. He’s probably trying to do a little too much and be Superman on every play. There are some things that he forced, and he knows that. We emphasized that very hard yesterday. He just needs to take care of the ball more and realize that every play is not all on him.”
But the offense isn’t the only problem. The Rebels’ defense, which returned six starters and was supposed to be the strength of the team, has instead regressed.
Against Vanderbilt, the defense was good most of the game, but occasionally gashed for huge gains. The most hurtful was an 80-yard run by Warren Norman, which broke a 14-14 tie and put the Commodores ahead for good in the third quarter.
Norman wasn’t even touched as he blew through a wide-open line. It was obvious multiple Ole Miss players had missed their assignments.
Senior safety Fon Ingram said the mistakes were bewildering, but they were fixable.
“It’s disappointed a lot of us,” Ingram said. “It’s bothering us. But like I said, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board, go on back to practice, back to work.”
The Rebels need to improve in a hurry, or their season could get ugly. They have road games against No. 1 Alabama, No. 10 Arkansas and No. 15 LSU over the next two months. And the SEC will never been known as a sympathetic conference.
“We have to make sure that everyone is playing very hard,” Nutt said. “I can live with whatever happens if they play their hardest and give themselves the best opportunity to win. The best way to do that is to keep believing, tune out everything else, keep a focus, and go to work.”
David Brandt/The Associated Press