NOTEBOOK: Rebels’ defense shines without key pieces

Published 9:41 am Sunday, October 25, 2015

No Tony Conner. No Robert Nkemdiche. No problem.

The Ole Miss defense took a step toward looking like its old self Saturday night in the Rebels’ 23-3 win over No. 15 Texas A&M.

Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen was pressured all night, throwing for only 88 yards and completing just 12 of 34 passes. Allen was relieved late in the game by Jake Hubenak.

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Even without two of their key components on defense, the Rebels proved to be a stingy bunch, holding the Aggies to a field goal and having what many Rebel defenders felt was their best defensive performance since Alabama or even further back.

“I think we just got back to how we were playing the first four games,” linebacker C.J. Johnson said. “I think the last few weeks, we just haven’t been happening. We haven’t been playing with no juice. We haven’t been tackling. Tonight I think we showed what we can do.”

Johnson, who made his return from a meniscus injury against Florida, had a fumble recovery. It was one of three Aggie turnovers as Will Few recovered a muffed punt and Kendarius Webster had an interception.

It was the return of the opportunistic defense that had been lacking in weeks past.

“Get to the ball. That’s it, fly” linebacker DeMarquis Gates said. “Coach (Dave) Wommack gave us a great game plan. It was very simple, and we just had to execute it.”

Run game returns
After a maligned showing against Memphis, the running game returned for Ole Miss, at least for one night.

The Rebels rushed for 230 yards on 51 carries. It was 190 more yards than Ole Miss accrued against the Tigers a week ago. Memphis was not the first game where the run game could not get on track for the Rebels — it was just the latest.

Jaylen Walton led all rushers with 97 yards on 22 attempts with his longest carry being 29 yards.

“It started in practice on Tuesday,” Walton said. “We definitely said we had to run the football to win these football games and keep it close. In this league, you have to be able to run the football to win games, and we have the backs capable of getting those dirty yards.”

Injury update
It was a scary scene at halftime as offensive lineman Christian Morris appeared to collapse on the sideline after the Rebels hit a field goal as time expired.

Medical staff rushed to Morris’ side quickly as he was put on a stretcher and carted off the field.

Ole Miss media relations announced the sophomore left tackle suffered a neck injury and was taken to a nearby hospital for further evaluation. Head coach Hugh Freeze didn’t have any further update on his condition afterward.

On top of Conner being out still recovering from meniscus surgery, it was announced prior to the game that Nkemdiche would not play after having headaches and feeling dizzy Saturday morning on the heels of the concussion Nkemdiche sustained against Memphis last week.

Extra points
Tight end Evan Engram had a season-best four catches for 35 yards and his first touchdown of the season. He set a new school record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,126 yards, topping Jim Poole’s previous mark of 1,113 from 1969-71. … Trae Elston recorded a career-high five pass breakups Saturday. … With Nkemdiche missing Saturday’s game, Breeland Speaks recorded his first career start, recording three tackles.