By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – There weren’t many favors done by Mississippi State for its rival, Ole Miss, when the Bulldogs won 41-27 in Starkville last year, the regular season finale.
There was one favor, though. They gave the Rebels an option look that they really hadn’t seen.
“Mississippi State kind of introduced us to the option. They were successful with it,” Ole Miss tackle Jerrell Powe said.
That may be an understatement. The Bulldogs produced twin 100-yard rushers in tailback Anthony Dixon and quarterback Chris Relf. They ran for 317 yards, and Relf averaged 8.7 yards per carry.
The Rebels were better against a similarly styled team in the Cotton Bowl, holding Oklahoma State, the Big 12’s top rushing team, to 140 yards on 28 carries and seven points.
The effort dropped the Cowboys 47 yards below their average and helped the Rebels to a 21-7 win.
Batting .500 against the option wasn’t good enough for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, however.
“Every day in meetings, we talk about how to defend the option no matter what play or what defense we have called … just because of our performance at Mississippi State. That hurt us,” senior end Kentrell Lockett said. “No matter what, coach Nix stresses that we’re not going to be beaten by the option any more.”
Perhaps not, but defending it became more difficult this week when it was learned that Lockett, an All-SEC candidate, is being put through a series of tests for an irregular heartbeat. He will miss Saturday’s opener against Jacksonville State, and his status for the remainder of the season is unclear.
That means the Rebels will have brand new starters at each end Saturday and no experienced depth behind them.
Five times last year, the Rebels held teams to fewer than 100 rushing yards. State’s figure was far and away the highest gained by an opponent. It pushed the Rebels’ per-game average to 140.3 rushing yards allowed, sixth in the league.
“We finished at the top on third downs, and that’s getting off the field. That’s what matters, not how many yards a team gets against us,” Powe said.
Indeed, the opponent success rate was just 29.7 percent in sustaining drives, but the Bulldogs’ option struck a chord with Nix.
“We want to be fundamentally sound and not be in a situation where we’re not prepared,” he said. “I felt like we weren’t at our best when we played in that football game.”
So the theme is set, the battle cry for players to be disciplined and assignment-sound. Be in the right place and make the play.
The Rebels figure to see the option more than once from run-oriented Jacksonville State.
Nix says he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from his front seven in camp, the leadership of Powe and three other senior tackles, the production of linebackers led by veterans Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker.
He’s optimistic that successful recruiting has delivered players who, though inexperienced, have the talent to help out during Lockett’s time away, however long that may be.
“I’ve been pleased with our front seven,” Nix said. “I feel like those guys are ready to accept the challenge.”