After the loss to Memphis, reality set in for Ole Miss—particularly for their defense. After missing 30 tackles and allowing 495 yards of total offense, the “landshark” defense simply was not getting the job done. The defense had to be better if this team was to have a chance to survive their remaining SEC schedule.
Fortunately for the Rebels, they have. The defensive resurgence is a big factor in the Rebels adding back to back conference wins and remaining in good position to win the SEC west.
“We really got our confidence back,” Mike Hilton, senior safety, said. “The senior leadership has really started to take over, and making sure guys are motivated and focused on what we’re trying to achieve.”
Hilton had to move to the Huskie, a lynchpin position in the Rebel defensive scheme, in wake of Tony Conner’s absence.
“That Huskie position is kind of like a star position,” Trae Elston, senior safety, said. “You’ve got to have instincts in general as a player. You get to do a lot. You get to play, man. You get to play zone, and you get to blitz.”
The Ole Miss defense held each of their last two opponents to under 20 points. It has also forced opposing quarterbacks to complete under 43 percent of their passes in the two-game stretch, a testament to an improvement in the secondary.
Auburn ran 73 plays on Saturday, and with the exception of a few explosive plays, the defense was dominant.
“66 of those plays we held a very good football team to 170 yards and gave up seven explosive plays. So, that is the good and the bad about the truth of the game,” Freeze said. “But on 66 plays we were very good on the defensive side.”
Freeze stressed the need to eliminate the number of big plays allowed but was pleased with the defensive performance as a whole.
Getting off of the field on third down had been the defense’s biggest issue this year, but that was not the case on Saturday as the Auburn offense was 2-15 on third down and were 0-2 on fourth down.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has given up some of his play calling duties in the recent weeks, and as a result, has been able to help out on the defensive side of the ball a little more, a possible reason for the improvement, especially on critical downs.
“Schematically, we’ve really just cut down a lot. I started giving some more of the play calling duties to Dan so I could see if I could assist on the other side, and we just started cutting down,” Freeze said. “Making sure our kids understood this is exactly what we want to run.”
Looking forward, the Rebels expect a boost with the addition of Conner, and many members of the Rebels secondary will be able to return to their regular position.
“It will be a big plus, a lot of guys want Tony back of course. He is a big play guy for us,” Hilton said. “We know he is hungry to get back out here, and hopefully he will go this week and it will just give us more confidence.”