OXFORD, Miss. – As a writer and photographer for The Rebel Walk, I am honored to have an up-close view of the Ole Miss football team. Each week, I try to bring you the sights and sounds from the Rebels’ sideline from my vantage point.
This week, I’d like to begin as I made my way into Oxford from Madison. I noticed the roads were clear, and when I arrived on campus the parking garage traffic was sparse and the Grove was not as packed as last weekend—all the result of an 11:00 am kickoff and an FCS opponent, UT-Martin. As I normally do, I arrived at the stadium one hour before kickoff, and at 10:00 am the crowd was still filing in.
The game, itself, it was a tale of two halves.
The Rebels won the toss and deferred to the second half. They kicked off to UT-Martin, and though the defense played with enthusiasm, they were over-running plays and arm-tackling. The Skyhawks were able to pierce the Rebel defense for a quick touchdown and took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter (after missing the ensuing extra point).
Honestly, I wasn’t too worried as I figured the Ole Miss offense would strike early and often. In the beginning, however, the Rebs were a little rusty. A holding penalty cost a touchdown, an interception stopped a drive, and the normally sure-footed kicker clanged the wrong side of the goal post.
At the end of the first half, in spite of quarterback Shea Patterson going 12 for 17 for 230 yards with two touchdowns to A.J. Brown, and in spite of the Rebels tallying 17 first downs and only punting once, Ole Miss found itself in a dogfight with UT-Martin. Head coach Matt Luke’s team went into halftime with a slim 17-16 lead.
Step back from the ledge
At the half, I took a minute to look at Twitter—and soon wished I had not. Social media was blowing up with naysayers. Fans who had been on the bandwagon appeared to be jumping off.
Here, though, is perhaps where my proximity to the field, combined with my years of both playing and coaching sports, as well as watching my son play Division I athletics, come into play.
I have watched this Ole Miss football staff up close, and I have a “feeling” about them. Not only have I watched them coach, I have, more importantly, seen the players respond to that coaching. I promise you, the players are absorbing every word their position coaches tell them. As I said last week, the team has “bought-in,” as coaches say, to what they are being taught. They are hungry to learn and get better; you can literally see it in their eyes.
I told several friends who texted me at halftime (asking me if I knew what was going on) that we would see a different set of Rebels when the second half started. I was fairly certain the halftime speech wasn’t going to be pleasant. Everything in athletics starts with accountability, and this coaching staff appears to preach it AND mean it.
Sure enough, Ole Miss came out in the second half—and much of what went wrong in the first went right in the second.
Though he had already thrown for more than two hundred yards, Shea Patterson was even better in the second half than he was in the first. Running back Jordan Wilkins ran with renewed vigor. A.J. Brown continued to look like a grown man playing football against anyone who tried defend him. DaMarkus Lodge looked unstoppable and seemed able to catch passes at will.
The defense played with more urgency, pursuing the ball and gang tackling. As most predicted from the outset, the Rebels ending up winning going away and were firmly in control early in the 3rd quarter.
I like what I see out of this group of coaches and players, and I believe the fans need to give it more time and trust the process. Coach Luke, offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff understand where they want to go and how they are going to get there.
Does this mean it will always be easy? No.
Will our Rebels face adversity along the way? Absolutely. But keep in mind, the culture is changing before our eyes, and the players and coaches are learning on the fly.
Give it time, fans, and in the meantime, Rebels, give ‘em hell!