November 20, 2012 11:05:38 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The one thing Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze agree on prior to Saturday's Egg Bowl is the University of Mississippi football team is playing with noticeable effort in 2012.
The first thing Mississippi State University's Mullen said he noticed Sunday when he watched film to prepare for his fourth rivalry game is the intangible energy and effort Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) plays with on both sides of the ball.
"It looks like they're on the right path by playing hard, and the number one thing I look at when you turn on the film is what I'd want to see, which is all 11 guys on the field playing really hard," Mullen said. "If you do that, you have the opportunity to be successful, and I've seen their team play really hard this season."
Mullen's "right path" comment is ironic because he attracted attention for taking a microphone after MSU's 42-27 upset of Ole Miss in 2009 and declaring "there's one program in this state that's on the rise and heading in the right direction." The comment played off a pregame quote by then-Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
When asked Monday what he thought he'd remember about his first team at Ole Miss, Freeze pointed to the effort of the players. The statement was a revelation because Freeze admitted in July that only about "70 percent" of his team had bought into his new philosophy since being hired as the Rebels new coach.
"I was really taken aback by the effort and passion they gave every single week amid some disappointing things," Freeze said Monday. "That was the first goal I said. The only goal I've talked about this year (was) to put a product on the field for this university that played with great pride and passion. Our kids have done that."
Statistics show Ole Miss has played with more effort and has been more disciplined. The Rebels are tied for third in the SEC with MSU (8-3, 4-3) with just 50 penalties in 11 games.
"I think the two things that are musts at this level of football, no matter what league you're in, are playing with effort on every play and playing like you've gotten work done in practice leading up to the game," MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. "I know it sounds like basic things, but you'd be amazed at the consistency the high level Southeastern Conference programs do both of those things. When you look at (Ole Miss), both of those things are at a high level even in close losses this season."
Ole Miss also is even in the turnover margin department. It has forced 24 turnovers this season. Ole Miss was next to last in the SEC in turnover margin last year (minus-8).
"It's going to come down to who can execute the plan best, who takes care of the ball, and who makes the fewest mistakes," Freeze said. "We'll bounce back and they'll be ready for it. We've been here before, gone through a difficult loss and got ready to play the next week. I have no doubt they will this week also."
The final piece to Freeze's rebuilding job was installing former East Mississippi Community College standout Bo Wallace at quarterback. Wallace has brought energy and playmaking ability to the position, and is fifth in the SEC in passing (231.7 yards per game, 14 touchdowns). He also has a league-high 13 interceptions.
Freeze said Monday a shoulder injury that has nagged Wallace since last September has held him back from showing his full arsenal, but he said but he likely will start at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) against MSU.
"He's definitely not at 100 percent, (and) he wasn't Saturday, and you can tell on some of his throws," Freeze said. "He's proven to be very resilient. He's a tough kid. He'll get ready to go the best he can on Saturday. I don't think he was any worse, but I don't think he was any better (health wise on Sunday)."
MSU made a late run to sign Wallace after the All-American helped
EMCC win the national NJCAA championship and set NJCAA single-season records for most passing yards (4,604), total yards offense (4,810), and passing touchdowns (53). That winning mentality attracted Mullen to Wallace and made him appear to be a good fit to add depth following the departure of Dylan Favre from the program.
"When you look at him, he's won," Mullen said. "There's something about winning at quarterback. That is an important aspect at that position because you can really raise the level of play of everybody around you. It's that belief when you walk into the huddle that if we've got you in the huddle, we've got a chance to win this game. That's a contagious attitude."