OXFORD — Playing as a top-five team for the first time, the Ole Miss football team passed a major test Saturday night in a 35-20 rout of then-No. 14 Texas A&M at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
Coach Hugh Freeze and his Rebels will try to build on the momentum of back-to-back victories at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) when they play host to Tennessee at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“It was a great atmosphere to play in at Kyle Field,” Freeze said. “I’m really, really pleased with the way our kids prepared and the way they handled the environment, and the start we got. We were very, very solid defensively for the better part of three-and-a-half quarters. We asked them to take too many snaps there in the second half. We didn’t play quite with the same passion at the end of the game.”
Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) built a 21-0 halftime lead and led 35-7 before
Texas A&M scored two touchdowns in the closing minutes. Freeze said a quick start was the key one week after a 23-17 upset of then-No. 3 Alabama.
“To go in there and set the tone early, play a sound game and win the turnover battle and protect the football was vital,” Freeze said. “Played well enough offensively to manage the game and let our defense win it. To play back at home against Tennessee is exciting. We love playing in front of our home crowd. That team is eerily similar to our journey.”
Tennessee (3-3, 0-2) is in its second season under Butch Jones. The Volunteers have lost narrow conference decisions to Georgia (35-32) and Florida (10-9). Tennessee defeated Chattanooga 45-10 last week.
“They are a very, very talented team,” Freeze said. “They are hungry. It’s one of those scary games that you know they have good enough athletes to beat you. The job coach (Butch) Jones and his staff have done is really admirable. They are quite talented. Again, they’re hungry.”
Ole Miss ranks among the nation’s best in several statistical categories on defense. The Rebels are allowing 11.8 points per game, which is second nationally to Stanford (10 ppg.). Ole Miss is 13thnationally in total defense (307.2 yards per game).
Freeze said defensive coordinator David Wommack made some key offseason changes and the unit has really matured, helping it improve from last season when it allowed an average of 23.7 ppg.
“The first thing that popped in my mind (when asked about the defensive turnaround) was (cornerbacks coach) Jason Jones deserves a lot of credit,” Freeze said. “Dave (Wommack)’s schematics have a lot to do with it. They do a great job. With our corners, I don’t know I remember a deep ball this year that we weren’t in position. That doesn’t mean we’ve made every play. I think we were in position. Even the one where they hit on the little skinny post the other night, our freshman (Kendarius) Webster was right in position. He just has to make a play on it. That hasn’t always been the case.
“Recruiting helps that. The second thing that popped in my mind was we haven’t given up explosive plays. I’ve always been a believer from being an offensive coach, if you make an offense have to drive a consistent drive over and over again for 60-70 yards, we make mistakes on offense. You’re going to block a look wrong or something. It’s very difficult if you don’t get explosive plays.”
Quarterback Bo Wallace said the win was key for Ole Miss. The Rebels had lost all six previous series meetings against the Aggies.
“It felt good because that was the only team in the West we hadn’t beaten yet,” Wallace said. “We definitely wanted that one. All of that is secondary to what we’re trying to do. We’re right in the thick of things and control our own destiny. If we keep winning, we’re in. That’s the goal each week.”
n In related news, senior Cody Prewitt was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week and freshman Marquis Haynes was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.
Prewitt returned an interception 75 yards for his first career touchdown against Texas A&M. The free safety from Bay Springs led a defense that limited the Aggies to their lowest point total of the year and shut them out in the first half for the first time in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had seven tackles and his 11th career interception, which is tied for seventh-most in school history.
Prewitt also was named the National Defensive Back of the Week by College Football Performance Awards.
Haynes, a freshman defensive end, had two sacks among his four tackles in the victory. He leads the team and ranks fifth in the SEC with four sacks.
Sophomore Evan Engram also was recognized Monday, as he was one of 33 players named to the John Mackey Award Midseason Watch List.
Given annually to the most outstanding collegiate tight end, the award recipient is selected by vote of the John Mackey Award Selection Committee. The John Mackey recipient will be announced Dec. 10 and then presented live Dec. 11 at The Home Depot College Football Awards Red Carpet Show on ESPNU.
Engram has 18 catches for 264 yards. He also has created mismatches that have led to numerous big plays for the offense.
Semifinalists for the award will be announced Nov. 17. Finalists will be announced Nov. 24.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.