After starting off the season 2-0 against far weaker athletic opposition, the Ole Miss football team faces a daunting task in its first SEC game against No. 1 Alabama.
All week, head coach Matt Luke has stressed to his players the importance of maintaining focus and combining consistent intensity with physical presence. While last year’s 66-3 thrashing could be a weight on players’ and coaches’ minds leading up to the game, Luke made sure to emphasize the fresh start this Saturday provides.
“I don’t think that last year has any bearing on this year,” Luke said. “It’s their team from 2018 against our team from 2018, so I think that’s the way you have to look at it.”
From Luke down to his roster, the focus is clear for the Rebels: It’s about playing the Ole Miss Rebel brand of football, no matter who is in town.
“It’s not about them,” senior defensive end Victor Evans said. “It’s about us going out there and playing how we know we can play.”
After allowing 38 points in the first half to an FCS team last week, the defense is looking to avoid a slow start against Tua Tagovailoa and an Alabama offense that has put up more than 50 points in each of its first two games and looks more explosive and dynamic than in years past.
“They want to do better. I think the level of focus goes up,” Luke said. “I think the main thing is (that) you want (Alabama) to have to earn it. You don’t want to give them anything.”
The offense will hope to stay on the same track its been on through the first two games of the season. Junior tight end Dawson Knox discussed the importance of keeping a mental edge and avoiding intimidation against teams whose reputations precede them such as Alabama.
“It was probably around the middle of (last year’s Alabama game) that I had my first big reception, and that was kind of the first time I noticed that I could really get out there and play with anybody,” Knox said. “I think it kind of gave me some confidence for the rest of the season.”
The Ole Miss offense currently ranks as the No. 3 scoring offense in the country and averages 9.39 yards per play. Underneath that high-flying, fast-paced offense, an improved running game has been a nice surprise for Rebel fans. The offensive line and Scottie Phillips’ success will be key to giving quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and wide receivers A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge time to go to work against a fearsome Alabama front four.
“I think the balance is good. Having that balance, I think, makes you really hard to defend, so I think we have to keep that up,” Luke said. “That’ll be a huge challenge against Alabama — to run it enough to get those one-on-ones,”
The added involvement of big-bodied tight ends Knox and Octavious Cooley to the blocking scheme has also been crucial to the renewed running game.
“We’ve been in protection a little bit more than (we are) out running routes,” Knox said. “When we bring a tight end in the box, obviously it adds an extra blocker — adds another dimension to the offense. And so I think that has really been able to get us going.”
With sophomore guard Ben Brown listed as probable for the weekend after going through concussion protocol, the offensive line improves and becomes more flexible in its rotations. In a game that could devolve into a shootout from the starting gun, offensive line depth could play a key role in determining who might pull away in the fourth quarter.
More than anything, the Rebels want fans to know that the team is ready to compete.
“We’re going to have a little extra something for them,” Knox said.