By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Ole Miss’ miserable start to the season can be blamed on its non-existent running game. Or maybe it’s the struggling quarterback play. Or the porous offensive line.
Actually, it’s all three. And if the Rebels don’t correct the problems quickly, a long September could turn into a long season.
“We have to execute and everyone has to take care of their jobs without making mistakes,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “I think we could become a good offense.”
So far, it hasn’t happened, which is perplexing since the offense was supposed to be this team’s strength. All five starting offensive linemen and the top three running backs returned from last season, but the results haven’t been even close to what was expected.
Now the Rebels have a 1-3 record and must travel to face Fresno State (2-2) on Saturday.
The statistics are ugly: After back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia, Ole Miss ranks 11th out of the 12-team SEC in scoring offense, is last in total offense, 11th in rushing offense, 11th in passing offense, last in pass efficiency, 11th in first downs and 11th in third-down conversions.
Bright spots are hard to find.
Nutt said all aspects of the offense need to improve, but improving the running game is most crucial. Injuries have decimated the backfield early this season, with seniors Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis both missing extended time. Sophomore Jeff Scott leads the team in rushing with 212 yards and three touchdowns — though most of that production came in the team’s lone win against FCS opponent Southern Illinois.
Bolden returned two weeks ago from a fractured ankle, but has looked a step slow with just 41 yards in 13 carries combined against Vanderbilt and Georgia. Davis hasn’t played since the season-opener against BYU, but Nutt hopes he’ll return against Fresno State.
“As you know, we have to have a running game,” Nutt said. “I feel like Enrique (Davis) should be closer to full speed this week. Devin Thomas and Jeff Scott are playing well. Brandon (Bolden) keeps coming along. I hope we can get back to having our running backs in the game.”
Even when the running backs have been healthy, running room has been hard to find because of a struggling offensive line. Tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie anchor the left and right sides of the line, respectively, but the interior has been a revolving cast of characters as the coaches try to find some productivity.
Bolden said it all comes down to confidence.
“We need to start believing in the run game,” Bolden said. “The offensive line has some big guys. We need to get all five of them moving.”
The lack of a consistent running game has made life difficult for the Rebels’ new quarterbacks. Junior Zack Stoudt has started the past three games, but hasn’t had much success. He’s thrown for 469 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions while completing barely half of his passes. Backup Randall Mackey has thrown for 106 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Nutt hasn’t totally absolved the two from blame, but said most of the problems stem from a lack of blocking support.
“When they’ve had time, they’ve done some good things,” Nutt said.
The lone bright spot for the offense is true freshmen Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell, who have immediately become two of the team’s most explosive playmakers. Moncrief has caught nine passes for 150 yards, including a touchdown in each of the past two games. Brassell is playing on offense, defense and special teams, and returned a punt for an 81-yard touchdown last week against Georgia.
“I feel like I’ve made an impact but I’m going to stay focused and not have a big head,” Moncrief said. “I need to play harder and get better.”
That’s good advice for the entire offense, which has scored just three touchdowns in three games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Still, Nutt said Saturday’s relatively close 27-13 loss to Georgia was a sign things are improving.
“After talking to them and watching their body language (after the game), I feel good about these guys,” Nutt said. “I feel good about their confidence. Naturally, you gain confidence by winning and having success. It is hard when you don’t have success. You have to keep building and knowing that it is there and it is coming.”