On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Oxford, the Ole Miss Rebels hosted the annual Grove Bowl in front of a few thousand dedicated fans in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The offensive and defensive units, led by newly hired coordinators Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff, respectively, squared off in a full-length, intra-squad scrimmage that gave the coaches and fans a performance to pour over until fall practices start. To even things out, the defense was given a 27-0 but allowed only to score directly off turnovers.
Rising sophomore Shea Patterson got the start at quarterback, as expected, and wasted no time linking up with receivers DK Metcalf and AJ Brown.
Early in the first quarter, Patterson shot a 28-yard bullet down the left side of the field to Metcalf, who sidestepped deftly around an opposing cornerback for the first touchdown of the game. Just minutes later, Patterson sent Brown up the middle for a 76-yard touchdown reception. Both extra point attempts were good, and the score rose to 27-14.
“The sky’s the limit for those two (Metcalf and Brown),” Patterson said. “They will be as good as they want to be.”
Both Metcalf and Brown demonstrated an ability to beat corners and safeties with the ball in their hands. While impressive, their performances did not reflect well on the Ole Miss secondary, which as a whole struggled to stop Patterson’s pass-heavy offense.
“You don’t know what to feel,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “You want to high five your receivers and say, ‘Man, great job,’ but you can’t give up explosive plays.”
Jordan Ta’amu, a junior college transfer from the New Mexico Military Institute, took over for Patterson in the second quarter. The native Hawaiian looked comfortable at the helm of the Rebels’ offense as he tossed a 74-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Van Jefferson, making the score 27-21.
Once the final whistle blew, Ta’amu had thrown 188 yards total in limited time on the field. With Patterson already penciled in as a day one starter, it remains to be seen if Ta’amu can challenge him for minutes.
“I think he’s got something to him,” Freeze said. “I’ve watched him for 15 practices now. I love his demeanor. He had been itching to go live, and I think he’s faster than anyone gives him credit. He’s got a knack for running the ball, and he throws the deep ball pretty well.”
Midway through the second quarter, Patterson re-entered the game, but a bad snap forced him to concede a two-point safety just before halftime.
The third quarter was largely uneventful; the Rebels’ electric first-half offense seemed to sputter out, and the defensive unit found limited success at stopping deep throws. Gary Wunderlich connected on a 30-yard field goal just over five minutes into the quarter, cutting the deficit to five.
Down 29-24, Jordan Ta’amu stepped up in the fourth quarter, driving the offense down the field and into the red zone. A 1-yard touchdown run from the junior was all it took to seal a 31-29 win for Freeze’s offense.
“It was a good competition. I think probably the right team won today,” Freeze said. “I thought the offense controlled most of the scrimmage.”
With Saturday’s game out of the way, the Rebels’ coaching staff can assess the efficacy of the team’s spring practices so far and continue its progression through the summer and into fall.
“I’m pleased with the improvements we’ve made in certain spots,” Freeze said. “We have a chance to be a talented ball club.”