• 81°

COLUMN: Rebels pick perfect time for an inspired effort

Ole Miss was in disarray.

At least that’s what it looked like.

With heads hung low, as if they didn’t want to be recognized after such an abysmal performance in a game both sets of players, coaches and fan bases are passionate about, Ole Miss’ players looked defeated limping off the Liberty Bowl turf last Saturday in Memphis after that sobering loss to the Tigers.

And more than a game looked lost.

A defense that players and coaches actually believed in the offseason could be just as good as last year’s unit turned in its latest no-show against the forward pass, a running game that’s struggled so much during Hugh Freeze’s tenure continued to be bogged down, and Ole Miss limped to the finish line against a team it really shouldn’t be losing to, suffering another whimpering setback after Florida sent the Rebels back to Oxford with a 38-10 loss two weeks earlier.

A season that started with so much hope and anticipation was all of a sudden on the brink, and a team that talked about embracing heightened expectations and spoke with conviction in the preseason about Atlanta being a realistic destination to play in the SEC Championship Game was searching for answers.

This is the year, after all, that Freeze and his staff have always been looking to as the year to really compete since taking over in 2012. Freeze had his third full recruiting class to go with the star-studded group of juniors that signed in 2013, and he had more than half his starters back on both sides of the ball.

Yet Ole Miss didn’t look anything like an experienced team loaded with NFL talent in the first half of the season, and injuries didn’t help. The frustration seemed to peak when safety Trae Elston started questioning his teammates’ desire after the Memphis loss.

One more loss would only make things worse. One more loss, and Ole Miss’ SEC title hopes would be gone. One more loss, and what’s left to play for? One more loss, and Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner (who’s still out with his knee injury) may start thinking about protecting themselves with NFL millions just months away.

One more loss with games against Auburn, Arkansas, No. 5 LSU and Mississippi State in Starkville looming, and things might get ugly.

But Ole Miss won Saturday.

Against a Texas A&M squad that’s been just as pass-happy as all of Kevin Sumlin’s teams, the Rebels’ defense threw it back to last season rather than looking like the SEC’s third-worst pass defense that it actually was at the start of the day. The Rebels generated a consistent pass rush (two sacks, six hurries) and stayed in the hip of arguably the league’s most talented receiving corp.

Rarely was anyone open, and Kyle Allen, with his banged-up shoulder, rarely had the time to find the ones that were. The Aggies, who throw for 291 yards a game on average, finished with 134 through the air and 192 in all.

Tunsil returned from his suspension and blew open holes for a running game that finally gave Freeze the offensive balance he longs for, for one game at least. While the Aggies came into the game as the SEC’s worst run defense against league competition, Ole Miss’ 230 yards are a start for a team that’s going to have to at least pick and choose its spots to run if it’s serious about winning the West.

But Ole Miss still has a shot, and that’s the whole point.

The Rebels’ gauntlet continues at Auburn this Saturday, and no week in the SEC is a gimme. But at least for one night, Ole Miss picked itself up, dusted itself off and stayed relevant in the race.

The Rebels have renewed life, and they picked the perfect time to get it.