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Rebels Look to Continue Improvement

By Matt Smith
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Junior quarterback Bo Wallace said he and his teammates talked about their failures late in games this offseason, hoping to correct those mistakes in search of bigger and better things in 2013.

When a team wins five more games than it did the previous year, there is often little to complain about within the program and fanbase. The 2012 Ole Miss Rebels did just that, going from 2-10 in 2011 to 7-6 in 2012.

The perception was that first-year coach Hugh Freeze got every ounce of potential out of last year’s team by getting to the program’s first bowl game in three years. A closer dissection of the Rebels’ season shows that there may in fact have been more wins to be had.

Against Texas A&M, Freeze elected to go for the nail in the coffin on a fourth-down call in his own territory while holding a 27-23 lead late in the game, in lieu of punting. The call backfired, as the Rebels failed to convert. Four plays later, Johnny Manziel and the Aggies scored the game-winning touchdown, completing a comeback from 10 points down with eight minutes to play.

A month later, also in Oxford, the Rebels raced to a 23-6 lead over Vanderbilt in a game in which the winner would gain bowl eligibility. A second-half meltdown by Ole Miss allowed the Commodores to rally and earn that crucial sixth victory, 27-26.

Many expected Ole Miss to get blown out at LSU the following week, but the Rebels held a surprising 35-28 lead in the fourth quarter at Tiger Stadium. A punt return touchdown by LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and a missed field goal by Bryson Rose doomed Ole Miss, however, as LSU rallied for a 41-35 win.

If just a few plays had gone differently, Ole Miss may have gone from 10 losses to 10 wins in one season. Those missed opportunities serve as added fuel for the 2013 Rebels.

“It was some of the small things,” explained junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief. “We just want to maximize our potential and be great this year.”

Always in search of motivational tactics, Freeze has reminded the players of just how thin the line is between success and failure.

“It’s a great building tool for this year,” Freeze said. “Everything happens for a reason. Certainly it was very difficult, buy they were great learning experiences for us.”

Freeze was impressed by the response of his team from those difficult turns of events.

“I was proud of the way our team bounced back from them and we’ll continue to use that as we build headed into year two [of Freeze’s tenure].

Always the optimist, Freeze put a positive spin on finishing 7-6 instead of 9-4 or 10-3.

“In hindsight, it may be a blessing that we didn’t win all of those. Can you imagine the expectations if we did? In this league, you can be a better football team and it not be reflective in wins and losses.”

Junior quarterback Bo Wallace said he and his teammates talked about their failures late in games this offseason, hoping to correct those mistakes in search of bigger and better things in 2013.

“All of our returning guys, we kind of talked about it. To bring our program to the next step – it’s ‘let’s win those games’,” Wallace said. “As a second-year player that’s played in SEC games, let’s win those tight games to get this program to where it should be.”

The Rebels defense, who gave up those three late game-winning touchdowns last season, hopes to fare better this season should they have to close a game out. Linebacker Mike Marry expressed how that can happen.

“You have to beat up a team until the clock hits zero. Eliminate mistakes. [Last year] let us know we have to finish games.”

Marry won’t be alone in that role. Sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche burst onto the scene a year ago with three sacks, three interceptions and 10 tackles for loss. Marry expects an even better Nkemdiche this fall.

“He always feels like he’s the best player on the field no matter what the situation,” Marry said of his fellow linebacker.

One thing is for certain: 7-6 in 2013 won’t satisfy Ole Miss and its fans like it did in 2012. To improve on that record, those close losses must become wins.

Freeze and his players think they have the formula to do so. That formula will be put to the test in the season opener Aug. 29 at Vanderbilt, one of those teams that snatched away victory from the jaws of defeat at the Rebels’ expense a year ago.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.