The Ole Miss Rebels return to the friendly confines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night after a two-game road trip. The Rebels (3-2, 0-1 SEC) will welcome Southeastern Conference newcomer Texas A&M (3-1, 1-1 SEC) to Oxford for a 6 p.m. kickoff on ESPNU.
The Rebels are coming off a hard-fought loss to No. 1 Alabama this past weekend, while the Aggies defeated Arkansas last weekend 58-10 and appear to be settling into the SEC well so far. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze knows he and his team will have a tough challenge this weekend.
“We’re looking forward to being back at home and playing a great opponent in Texas A&M, who has gained quite a bit of confidence since the beginning of the year,” Freeze said. “One of the keys is great quarterback play. Ours is suspect right now and theirs is very, very steady. The system that they run fits him very well. We’ve got our hands full with them. We’re glad it’s at home and look forward to getting back out.”
The quarterback position will be a key this weekend for Ole Miss after Freeze said he would open up the competition more in practice this week. Sophomore Bo Wallace and junior Barry Brunetti split reps all week, and after Thursday’s practice, Freeze said he wanted to look at the film before naming the starter for Saturday.
Texas A&M, however, has no questions at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel has had his way with opposing defenses en route to being the SEC’s fourth leading passer through four games, averaging 273.5 yards per game. Not only is he a threat with his arm, he is also a dangerous runner. Manziel is fifth in the conference in rushing yards per game (91.5 ypg) and has also scored six touchdowns on the ground this season for the Aggies.
“He can scramble all over the place,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “He stresses you. He absolutely stresses your defense. He is very good and very effective.”
It is that scrambling ability that Freeze and his staff are most impressed with when they look at Manziel on tape.
“He has a lot of things that are impressive,” Freeze said. “He has great speed and mobility. At the end of the day, the guy finds a way to extend play after play. Then it ends up being a dagger to you. He extends it and scores touchdowns. That’s the most concerning thing.”
Texas A&M brings a lot of weapons with it to Oxford, but first-year Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin is quick to realize the talent that Ole Miss has on the offensive side of the ball as well.
“They do a great job offensively in their schemes to get you spread out and to split you,” Sumlin said in this week’s press conference. “They’ve got some weapons and they are tough to defend. We’ve got our work cut out for us. The combination of their scheme with their team’s speed is what separates them.”
At running back, junior Jeff Scott, who leads the team with 317 rushing yards and four touchdowns, looks to continue his hot streak. Scott and the rest of the Ole Miss running backs could find themselves getting a lot of carries this weekend against a Texas A&M defense that ranks fourth in rushing defense (106.0 ypg) and seventh in total defense (338.5 ypg)
“It’s the fastest defense I think we’ve seen on tape,” Freeze said. “They play with extreme effort, and their speed on the front seven is faster than the ones we’ve seen. No one’s had a lot of success on them. Even in the loss to Florida, there wasn’t very much offense put on them, so I think they do a really nice job.”
With a defense as fast as Texas A&M’s, co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said the team is planning to run a lot of misdirection and motions to get them off balance.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rebels will be led by freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and sophomore safety Cody Prewitt, who are both coming off career-best games against Alabama. Nkemdiche was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance.
“Those two are two that I know have bought in,” Freeze said. “I know that they want to compete at a high level. They want to see this program change before they leave here. They show it in the way they play, prepare and study. I couldn’t be more pleased in their performance, with who they are and what they’re meaning to our program.”
Nkemdiche leads the team with 32 total tackles, and Prewitt is a close second with 29. Both have recorded an interception this season as well. Prewitt and Nkemdiche know though that this week’s main focus will be containing the speedy Manziel.
“This week we have a lot of plays where we will always have somebody watching him,” Prewitt said. “The defensive backs are going to stay disciplined with our scramble rules, and if we do that and have somebody watching him at all times, we’ll be good.”
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