Two games seem to be all the Ole Miss defense needed to get back on track and re-establish its identity as one of the most physical units in the country.
And the Rebels have the stats to prove it.
In its most recent two games, the Ole Miss defense has only given up 22 total points and has been able to get to its opponents’ quarterbacks for five sacks. The Rebels (7-2, 4-1) are tied for first in the Southeastern Conference in number of interceptions they have made (12).
In its last two games, the Landshark defense held Texas A&M and Auburn to an average of 11 points each. Now, No. 19 Ole Miss feels it has what it takes to finish the season on a high-note and make its way to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Rebels’ defense coming together
“I think it’s just us getting our focus right,” said defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who was named one of 20 semifinalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award for college football’s defensive player of the year on Monday. The 300-pound junior was also named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, honoring the nation’s top lineman or linebacker, on Thursday.
“I feel like everyone is cohesive together. Everyone has come together again. It got all discombobulated for a little bit, but right now I feel like we’re back on the same page. We feel good,” Nkemdiche added.
The Rebels’ defense has good reason to feel confident after holding the Tigers’ offense to 125 rushing yards and picking off Auburn’s quarterback Sean White once, while holding him to 258 passing yards and sacking him three times. Most importantly, Ole Miss shut down the Tigers’ talented sophomore running back Peyton Barber, who was held to 17 yards on eight carries.
The Landsharks had a similarly effective outing against A&M, as they swarmed Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen and kept him from getting solid reads on his receivers. Allen finished the game completing just 12 of 34 passes for 88 yards before being replaced by Jake Hubenak early in the fourth quarter. The entire Texas A&M offense was stymied, finishing with 192 total yards. Tra Carson, the Aggies’ leading running back, rushed for only nine yards on seven carries.
The Rebels have treated each game following the loss to Memphis as a do-or-die type of scenario.
Senior leadership inspiring confidence
“We really got our confidence back and it has shown by the way we have played in the last two games,” senior nickel back Mike Hilton said. “The senior leadership has started to take over, making sure guys are motivated and focused on what we are trying to achieve. So, we just have to keep that going for the rest of the season and see how it turns out.”
But what has been the difference for Ole Miss defensively? What has changed?
Nothing major, just the small things.
“We have focused on tackling and third downs,” said Hilton, who’s upbeat about the cohesiveness of the defense. “We have done real well in the last two games. We know if we do that, give the ball to our offense and they can go to work.”
Feature image credit: Bentley Breland, The Rebel Walk