BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Ole Miss punctuated a turnaround season with a 38-17 win against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham on Saturday. A five-win improvement and the program’s first winning season since 2009 sends the Rebels (7-6) into an offseason filled with optimism.
“It’s more important now than it was a few days ago,” head coach Hugh Freeze said of Saturday’s win. “I try to not make too much out of a single game either way, but no question that this advances our journey a bit and the process we’re on to be relevant in the SEC West year in and year out.
The first-year head coach was reflective on Saturday and talked about a turning point after the loss to Alabama in the SEC opener and valleys, specifically the Texas A&M and Vanderbilt heartbreaking losses. Even in those difficult times, Freeze reminded himself of the one goal he set for his team.
“As long as we were improving and competing, I knew in Year One that’s what I had asked,” Freeze said. “I had to remind myself of the goal that I’d set. It wasn’t to win ‘X’ amount of games. It was to make sure our team competed passionately for this university, and they did that.”
Wallace looks to continue progress
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace, the BBVA Compass Bowl MVP, completed 22 of 32 passes for 151 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, as the Rebels set the bowl record with 38 points.
He played through a sore shoulder, as he did most of the season, and a hit in the eye, which forced him to the locker room in the third quarter.
“I played OK,” Wallace said. “I felt really good at the start of the game and then had the two interceptions, but I just had to bounce back from it.
“When coach (Hugh) Freeze went tempo it settled me down a little bit because that’s what I am comfortable in. So, once we went tempo, I felt back in a rhythm a little bit.”
Wallace finished the season with 3,384 total yards (second all-time in a single season), 31 total touchdowns (second all-time), 2,994 passing yards (third all-time) and 22 passing touchdowns (fourth all-time), but he also threw an SEC-high 17 interceptions, which also ranks third all-time in a single season.
“My progression, I think I had an OK year, but there’s so many things I can get better at to turn into a great quarterback,” Wallace said. “And that’s what it’s about — being a great quarterback in the SEC.”
Marry, Nkemdiche step up
If there were a defensive BBVA Compass Bowl MVP, it likely would have been junior linebacker Mike Marry, who led the team with seven tackles, including four for a loss and one sack. The Rebels gave up just 17 points and 266 yards of total offense
Marry credits “finishing the game” and “playing for the guy next to you instead of playing for yourself” for the improvement on defense. After the 2011 season and hearing the negativity from everyone, Saturday’s win was particularly satisfying, as he and his teammates look ahead to next season.
“It feels good because it lets everyone know that our program is moving in the right direction,” Marry said. “We are not where we want to be right now, but we are trying to get there and we are ready to put in more work so we can get better next year.”
“We can be a whole lot better. We don’t know exactly everything about the defensive scheme yet. We’re still learning. We’re going to try and get better every day.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche recovered a fumble in Saturday’s win and finished the season as the team’s leader in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13), forced fumbles (4) and tied for the lead with three interceptions.
He said he was impressed with how his teammates grew, how they picked up the defense and tried to master it, but he is also excited about what the unit will look like in 2013.
“So far, this recruiting class has turned out to look extremely good, which will be extremely great for our future, but we never really know until February 6,” Nkemdiche said. “But at the same time, with the players that are considering us and that we’re hoping to land, they’re going to come in and fill in some spots and back some people up.”
One of those recruits is Denzel’s younger brother, Robert, the nation’s consensus top recruit, who played in the Under Armour All-American Game the previous day and was in attendance for the game Saturday.
“He’s in Birmingham right now and I’m fixing to go see him here in a minute,” Nkemdiche said. “No recruiting updates. I’m waiting just like you are all waiting, but I still feel great about it.”
Walton, Mathers provide spark
Junior running back Jeff Scott, who led Ole Miss with 846 yards on 197 carries this season, left the game in the second quarter with a pulled right hamstring.
After combining for just 174 yards on 34 carries in the regular season, freshman running backs Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers sparked the Rebels’ offense in Scott’s place.
“Jeff (Scott) pulled a hamstring and was not able to go,” Freeze said. “We’ve played Jaylen any chance we had him in the year. We had great confidence in he and I’Tavius Mathers. We’ve got two quality young backs there. It gave us a little spark at times.”
Mathers led the way on the ground with 96 yards on six carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run, the first in his career. Walton was second on the team with 56 yards on a team-high 10 carries.