By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Ole Miss will continue to focus on its run game this week, because that’s what it always does, head coach Hugh Freeze says.
That doesn’t mean fans should expect to see major personnel moves on the offensive line or at running back against No. 9-ranked Texas A&M.
The Rebels rushed for 750 yards in their first three games but have gained just 170 yards on the ground since as Alabama and Auburn have schemed them differently with ends and linebackers playing wider. That forces Ole Miss away from the edge where Jeff Scott and the Rebels were so successful in three straight wins and back toward the middle of the line of scrimmage where they’ve found the going much tougher.
“Good teams make you do different things than what your bread and butter is typically,” Freeze said.
Recently, the run game has looked more like the last row of the bakery’s bargain shelf.
Alabama held Ole Miss to 1.8 yards per rush, and almost half of the Rebels rushing yardage at Auburn came on a 52-yard sprint by Scott. On 38 other carries the Rebels gained 72 yards, a 1.9 average.
Guard Justin Bell said the linemen have to respond to the changing defenses.
“We’ve got to hit our landmarks, stay inside-out. Me being a guard, we’ve got to get movement on that 3-technique, that nose, me and the center. We’ve got to get the DT and get to the linebackers. That will make a tremendous difference,” he said.
The hidden figure that drove down the rushing yardage at Auburn was the six sacks allowed by Ole Miss.
The Rebels are ranked No. 107 out of 123 FBS teams and last in the SEC at three sacks allowed per game.
“Six sacks … the quarterback shouldn’t be on the ground at all, but you’re going to make mistakes, and as many drop-backs as we had, it’s going to happen,” Bell said. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”
Freeze said four of the six sacks were a result of Ole Miss offensive linemen losing one-on-one matchups with Auburn defensive players.
Quarterback protection calls can factor in too, and Freeze pointed out the difficulty in pass protection in a third-and-long situation where defenses have a clear advantage.
The Rebels were 5-for-19 on third downs at Auburn with an average distance of 7.42 yards needed to move the chains.
“They weren’t pressuring us or anything like that. A lot of times I set protections wrong or something like that,” Bo Wallace said.
“We’ve just got to be better up front.”
Running between the tackles will likely continue to include Barry Brunetti remaining in his role as backup quarterback and more of backup running back I’Tavius Mathers.
Slowed by injuries
Mathers was slowed at the beginning of the season by a sprained ankle. He’s averaging 7.6 yards on 14 carries.
“I-Train (Mathers) is improving and getting healthy and allowing us to do that better,” said Freeze, who has positive assessments of the power run game with Brunetti at quarterback.
He also said injuries to defensive linemen Carlton Martin and C.J. Johnson caused him to “switch a guy back over to the other side that we were trying to get some things ready for.”
Junior college transfer defensive tackle Lavon Hooks has practiced on offense at tight end.
“We lost all of our tight ends in one year,” Freeze said. “In this league if you’re going to run inside – these ends are 270, 280 pounds – you better have a guy who is a little more built for that. This is who we are right now.”