By David Brandt
OXFORD – Ole Miss has had a few huge victories and a few heartbreaking losses two-thirds of the way through its season.
Now the Rebels (5-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) are in the midst of a final week of rest before hosting Arkansas on Nov. 9. Second-year coach Hugh Freeze said all is not perfect, but he’s pleased that his team has persevered through a difficult schedule and is improving at almost every spot.
“We could easily have a couple more wins, and we could easily have a couple more losses,” Freeze said. “Your mind usually concentrates on the ones you let get away, but you have to move on from those. Winning the last two games (against LSU and Idaho) has helped tremendously with that.”
The Rebels’ improvement is especially evident on offense, where second-year starter Bo Wallace has had a quietly efficient season. The 6-foot-4 junior has completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards and 11 touchdowns. But maybe most important, he has just three interceptions through eight games after throwing 17 of them last season.
His right shoulder – which was surgically repaired during the offseason – hasn’t been a problem. It’s the second straight season Ole Miss has had a 5-3 record, but Wallace said this year has a different vibe because most of the SEC’s top teams like Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU are already in the rear-view mirror.
“It feels a lot different just because the meat of our schedule, we’ve been through,” Wallace said. “At the same time, every SEC team is great and we know we can’t take a week off or somebody will jump up and beat you.”
Wallace has been helped by a running game that’s stayed consistent despite the absence of Jeff Scott and an offensive line that’s providing plenty of protection.
The 5-foot-8, 162-pound Scott was a mainstay early in the season, and he still leads the team with 434 yards rushing and 8.2 yards per carry, but he’s been hobbled the past few weeks by a thigh bruise.
Freeze hopes Scott can return for the Arkansas game, but sophomores I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have been very good in his place.
Walton rushed for 106 crucial yards while Mathers added 51 in an upset win over then-No. 6 LSU on Oct. 19. Mathers added a career-high 138 yards rushing and a touchdown in a blowout win against Idaho on Saturday.
While Walton is a small, speedy back built much like Scott, Mathers is pushing 200 pounds and provides the Rebels with a better option for running up the middle.
“I’ve always felt that those two guys were solid backs, and I think they’ve proven it so far,” Freeze said. “Jaylen and I’Tavius showed me in the bowl game last year that they were what I think they could be, and I’ve had no reason to doubt that since then. They just continue to improve.”
The offensive line has provided the holes for whoever is running. Highly-regarded recruits Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson have joined veterans like Evan Swindall, Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray to provide versatility and depth.
Freeze said the offensive line is also a big reason why Wallace is having more success.
“When you’re able to run the ball it gives you a little more time to throw, and the decisions become better,” Freeze said.