By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Ole Miss had plenty of reasons to be frustrated after blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 14-13 loss to BYU on Saturday.
But there was one reason to celebrate: The Rebels’ much-maligned defense from a year ago actually played quite well.
That’s good news as Ole Miss (0-1) moves forward in its season, hosting Southern Illinois (1-0) at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Salukis play at the Football Championship Subdivision level, but the Rebels aren’t likely to take any opponent lightly. Just last season, Ole Miss suffered through one of its most embarrassing football moments, losing to FCS opponent Jacksonville State 49-48 in double overtime.
Southern Illinois is ranked No. 15 in the FCS coaches’ poll.
“All you have to do is watch the film to know that they are a scary bunch,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “This is a good football team. They have a couple transfers, some good tailbacks and a fast receiver. Their defense will blitz all night. They are really quick. We have a real challenge this week.”
The Ole Miss defense was the worst in the SEC last season, giving up more than 35 points per game. But against BYU, the Rebels gave up only one defensive touchdown. The Cougars gained just 316 yards and averaged 2.9 yards per rushing play.
“It was nice — especially compared to last year,” linebacker Mike Marry said. “It feels like a whole different team. There’s a different vibe. Even though they got plays on us, everybody continued to work hard and nobody had their head down. Everybody played like it was the first play of the game.”
Marry tied for the team lead with 13 tackles against BYU. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore is one of several new starters. He said his success was only because everyone else was doing their job.
“Our defense is playing as one,” Marry said. “Our defensive line was playing so well, their offensive linemen couldn’t get up to block me so I was able to move freely. Our corners were boxing the backs into the middle, so all I had to do was make plays.”
The Rebels are leaning heavily on junior college transfers this season, with three of them — cornerback Wesley Pendelton, defensive tackle Uriah Grant and safety Aaron Garbutt — starting their first game vs. BYU. Coach Houston Nutt has also seen improvement from some of the returners, including defensive end Wayne Dorsey and safety Damien Jackson, who tied Marry with 13 tackles.
Sophomore Charles Sawyer played his first game at safety after switching from cornerback during preseason camp. He responded with a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown. Sawyer’s switch is partly because of the 4-2-5 formation used throughout parts of preseason camp. Since the Rebels’ roster is short on linebackers, Nutt said he wanted to get more of his better secondary players on the field.
Nutt said it was a good opener, but there were plenty of mistakes to correct.
“There were some drives they could have gotten off the field sooner,” Nutt said. “There is no way that they are satisfied. They are happy with the way they competed. That is the way I feel about it. They played extremely hard against a veteran team. You can’t rest on that first game.”
The improved defense might have to carry the Ole Miss offense for the next few weeks. The Rebels lost starting running back Brandon Bolden for at least the near future because of a fractured ankle against BYU and junior quarterback Zack Stoudt will be making his first career start.
Marry said the Rebels’ defense is ready for the challenge.
“All I know is that if the other team doesn’t score, they can’t win,” Marry said. “So that’s our goal every week. We had a good start against BYU, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we can do better.”