Temperatures were recorded in the mid-to-upper 90s by opening kickoff, and the Rebels’ play offensively reflected the scorching temperatures at Vaught-Hemingway Saturday afternoon.
It was expected to be an easy win for 17th ranked Ole Miss, but the offense put their foot on the gas pedal and never let off, cruising to a 76-3 win over UT-Martin.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said he felt “anxious” about Saturday’s opening game compared to last year’s game against Boise State. Those feelings quickly went away as his players fired on all cylinders in their season opener, even some of his younger players.
“It was a good day for us,” Freeze said. “To be excited for all of the young kids to get in and make plays, and to see them enjoying the game of football – it is very rewarding. This game is a grind, and I am just really happy that all of them could get in.”
The first game of any college football season brings optimism and excitement for every program, but one small, dark cloud hangs over Ole Miss with the status of junior offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil.
Tunsil was held out of the game Saturday as a precaution of the NCAA investigation.
“I know that our university cooperates with the process in any of these situations, fully,” Freeze said of Tunsil. “Because of this, I am not privy to any of that information.”
Even without the star left tackle, the offense did not skip a beat from start to finish as their 76 points were the most scored in a game since the 1935 season. Ole Miss also racked up 662 total yards of offense. Everything was working for the offense, and the plethora of points were coming in bunches.
Junior quarterback Chad Kelly got the first snap for the Rebels and made the most of his opportunities. The junior transfer from East Mississippi Community College finished 9-15 passing for 211 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Kelly also added a 20-yard TD run in the third quarter.
“I thought Chad’s performance was really solid,” Freeze said. “He did miss a touchdown throw, and probably could have thrown one a little bit better on the fade to Laquon Treadwell early in the game, but outside of that I think he had a solid day.”
“I’m just happy I could be out there with my brothers, my coaches, my teammates and being out there for the fans,” Kelly said. “It’s great to get the first game under the belt and I’m just excited about the upcoming season. There’s always room for improvement.”
Redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade also had their moments throughout the game. Buchanan finished 4-6 passing for 58 yards and two touchdowns and Kincade finished 6-7 passing for 55 yards and one score.
The quarterbacks weren’t the only ones who shined on Saturday; 10 different players scored touchdowns for Ole Miss.
The surprise of the day on offense came from junior defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who caught a pass from Buchanan out of the backfield and rumbled for a 31-yard score in the second quarter.
Nkemdiche’s mother attended the game Saturday and was just as excited as Robert was when he crossed the goal line.
“That was for mom,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s rare that she can come. Coach Freeze and I came up with it and we worked on it in practice.”
The running game shined Saturday as the Rebels racked up 338 yards on the ground and five scores. Two of those scores came from senior running back Jaylen Walton whose three carries totaled 65 yards.
“Once I get past the second level, it’s my ballpark. We’re all in the playground there,” Walton said of his performance. “It’s all fun and games and it was a great day for us.”
In his first game back since his leg injury last season against Auburn, junior wide receiver Laquon Treadwell finished with four catches for 44 yards.
Treadwell looked a little rusty in his first game back as he missed a few routes and dropped some passes from Kelly and Buchanan. Freeze took some of the blame for Treadwell’s performance, saying he did Treadwell ‘some injustice’ for being protective with his injury.
Treadwell admitted he was rusty coming back for live action, but he looks to build on this performance and improve for the rest of the season.
“I still have a lot of work to do, not being live then going out there and catching the ball,” Treadwell said of his performance. “I wasn’t really locking all the way in and doing the little things right. That caused some bad plays on my part, but overall the offense looked great.”
The Rebels led the nation in scoring defense in 2014 and continued their ball-hawking ways to start 2015. Senior defensive back Trae Elston intercepted a pass from UT-Martin quarterback Jared Neal and returned it 93 yards in the 3rd quarter.
“You always try and dream what you want to do in a game,” Elston said. “I really didn’t get them my first three years, so it’s a big achievement for me to get one in the first game this year.”
The 1-0 Rebels will face Fresno State at home this Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.