By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Hugh Freeze stood at the Ford Center lectern at his introductory press conference and told us he understands the significance of the Mississippi State game.
If so, that single fact puts him ahead of his predecessor, Houston Nutt, who was unemployed by the time he finally grasped it.
A month ago, I considered the game a toss-up. A week ago, I thought a struggling Ole Miss run game that had made the Rebels quite one-dimensional, would make it difficult for them to win against MSU.
I thought, perhaps, that Freeze had done all he could do with this group of linemen and backs and that any future success would rely heavily – too heavily – on a passing game with a quarterback playing at less than full strength.
Freeze and offensive line coach Matt Luke tweaked the run game – with new blocking schemes Freeze says – and suddenly the Rebels were competitive against the No. 7 run defense in the country at LSU.
In fact, Bo Wallace’s 58-yard touchdown run, his longest run of the season, was made possible because four straight plays prior to that run were successful rushes of at least 5 yards by backs Randall Mackey and Jeff Scott.
When Wallace finally kept the ball, he had only to outrun LSU linebacker Kevin Minter to the end zone. Wallace’s “sprint” took longer than some of his teammates, but it was quite effective.
It proves what deception in the run game can accomplish.
Freeze showed LSU a new look, and it worked. LSU made adjustments and slowed things down later in the game.
Now MSU coach Dan Mullen has seen that look, and Freeze will need to counter-punch again.
Revived as it was at LSU, the Ole Miss offense is still just one game removed from a three-game stretch where it averaged just 1.8 yards per rush.
Counter-punching may require different personnel groupings, one with Barry Brunetti, the Rebels’ most physical inside runner, lined up at running back.
Exposing your backup quarterback to such a pounding is a risk, particularly with your starter one big hit to the shoulder from leaving the game.
The reward may be worth the risk when you consider the season is over if you do not win this game.
Win or lose …
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Freeze Year I will be viewed as a success given the hand he was dealt, the games he won, and the games he almost won.
Freeze can certainly stay on message about growth and program building through the recruiting season.
But reaching a bowl game when such odds were against you would add a stamp of validation to the season. So much more to talk about to recruits, so much more to accomplish with young players in bowl practice, and a reward for seniors who invested with him and thought they had little chance to play past November.
It would add so much on so many fronts, yet all it would add would not be as sweet for Ole Miss fans – who have endured Mullen’s taunts and three straight losses to the Bulldogs for the first time since pre-World War II – as simply winning on Saturday.
Winning won’t be simple, but it is attainable.
Understanding and embracing the challenge is the first step.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.