A renewed sense of purpose has overtaken the Rebel locker room following perhaps the most important win of Ole Miss football’s otherwise lackluster 2017 season.
The nail-biting victory over 6-3 Kentucky marked the Rebels’ second conference win and helped the team bounce back from the previous weekend’s heartbreaking, one-point defeat at the hands of Arkansas.
Now, the Rebels turn their attention to visitors Louisiana-Lafayette in an attempt to hit .500 for the first time since mid-October. The Ragin’ Cajuns, 4-4 on the season and fresh off a close win over South Alabama, present an intriguing opportunity for head coach Matt Luke and his Rebels to translate last Saturday’s win into forward momentum that could roll over into the last two weeks of SEC play.
Jordan Ta’amu, who took over following Shea Patterson’s season-ending injury, will face off against a similarly inexperienced starting signal-caller in ULL’s Levi Lewis on Saturday. Ta’amu, a junior JUCO transfer, has proved more than capable of handling the job through his two starts. Much of the Hawaii native’s success has come from his ability to rejuvenate the running attack.
ULL has employed a number of different quarterbacks throughout this season but is looking at true freshman Lewis to make the start under center. The dual-threat QB threw for two touchdowns and gained 129 yards on the ground in his first career start last week.
Lewis’ lack of film and elusive style of play present concerns for Luke and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, yet the pair seems ready for the challenge.
“He has really good short-yard quickness that can make people miss,” Luke said, referring to ULL’s young passer. “I think we have to do a great job of always keeping a hat on (him), almost like you are playing option football to have someone to account for him. He is a very good player.”
While ULL will try to take over the game on the legs and arm of Lewis, Ole Miss’s Ta’amu is an effective play-caller leading the team’s offensive charge.
After struggling to establish much, if any, success on the ground during the first half of the season, the Rebels have since stormed for 694 rushing yards over the last four games. Ta’amu, in just five game appearances this season, ranks fourth on the team in total rushing and second in yards per game.
“I just think the biggest thing has been the balance,” Luke said, speaking of his group’s recent offensive rejuvenation. “I think people not knowing what is coming. Is it run, pass or play action? If you come into the box, we will be able to make plays with our receivers. Just taking what the defense gives us and being balanced.”
That emphasis on balance and keeping opposing defenses on their toes will be vital if the Rebels hope to roll last weekend’s success into a late-season revival. With Ta’amu leading the charge and the team proving it still has fight left, this season could end up much brighter than once expected.
The Rebels kick off against the Ragin’ Cajuns at 11 a.m. Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.