OXFORD – With two new starters on the offensive line, Ole Miss cranked up its running game and released three games worth of frustration on its West Coast guests.
The Rebels, winless at home in their first two tries, rushed for 425 yards en route to a 55-38 win over WAC member Fresno State Saturday evening before 55,267 fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Junior tailback Brandon Bolden ran for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, twice gashing the Bulldogs for long runs up the middle in the second half behind guards Patrick Junen and Logan Clair, both making their first starts. Bolden’s game marked the sixth-highest rushing total in school history.
The run game up the middle late was boosted by the run game on the edge early. Speedy freshman Jeff Scott, held out of last week’s 28-14 loss to Vanderbilt with a foot injury, had success getting to the corner, once to the tune of a 55-yard touchdown run.
One of the biggest runs of the night, however, gained only inches. The Rebels faced fourth down and less than 1 yard when Jeremiah Masoli leaped for the necessary yardage. Ole Miss kept the ball and went on to score on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Masoli to Bolden with 9 minutes, 42 seconds remaining.
That gave Ole Miss a 48-24 lead, one it would hold after the frightful memory of Jacksonville State’s comeback win on opening day.
“The first thing (Fresno coach) Pat Hill told me when we were coming off the field was, ‘I didn’t expect you guys to play that hard,’ ” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “That’s a good football team, and if you didn’t play hard against a team like that, you were going to get beat. They match scores. That’s the way they play, and they are a physical bunch.”
The Rebels’ first convincing win against a quality opponent did not come without a cost. Senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett sustained what appears to be a torn ACL in the first quarter and is likely out for the year. He is a candidate to receive a medical redshirt.
Ole Miss (2-2) led 27-10 at halftime and sent signals early in the second half that it would take control.
Bolden ran up the middle 71 yards for a score on the first play after the second half kick. Then after the Rebels got a 51-yard punt return touchdown from Jesse Grandy, and the lead swelled to 41-10 with 12:30 left in the third quarter.
“I was really proud of our line, especially starting a true freshman up there in Patrick,” co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. “We talk about stepping up and not letting go of the rope, and they didn’t. I’m proud of all of them.”
Fresno State didn’t go away, but was too far back to mount a serious comeback, and finally the Rebels were able to run out the clock.
Still, the Bulldogs (2-1) finished with 420 of offense. Quarterback Ryan Colburn led the way, completing 31 of 41 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Colburn faced constant pressure. Some of it he avoided and made plays, but he was also sacked five times.
The revamped offensive line wasn’t bad, but the noticeable difference in the Ole Miss run game early was the speedy Scott, who helped the Rebels get to the corner in a way they never did last week against Vanderbilt.
“Our defense played well in segments, but we gave up some huge plays,” Hill said. “When we look at the film I think a lot of it is going to be assignment responsibility, things we have to tighten up. Offensively we had some scoring opportunities that we let get away.”
Scott had 75 rushing yards in the first half, 53 of them on a second-quarter touchdown run that gave Ole Miss a 21-7 lead.
It was a time in which the Rebels seemed to assert themselves after a nervous beginning.
Fresno State took the opening kick, and Colburn led the Bulldogs on a 74-yard drive.
Colburn was 3 for 3 for 56 yards on the drive, victimizing both Ole Miss corners along the way. He got the last 16 yards on a slant, a touchdown pass to wideout Jalen Saunders.
The Rebels answered though, as a 56-yard run by Masoli put them at the Fresno 8, and Enrique Davis went off the left side and into the end zone on the next play.
Ole Miss got its second touchdown when Masoli hit Melvin Harris on a 30-yard fade pattern to cap an 86-yard drive with 2:43 left in the first.
The Rebels got two field goals to Fresno’s one over the rest of the half to lead 27-10 at the break.
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600
PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal