August 27, 2013 12:13:33 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
Football season finds supporters of the University of Mississippi anticipating the season at a fervor pitch.
The Rebels have flirted with the preseason national rankings and look to build off last season's 7-6 final record. For the first time in three years, Ole Miss returned to postseason a year ago. The Rebels now look to climb higher in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
For Ole Miss to achieve higher success, it will need strong play from junior quarterback Bo Wallace. After a solid first season in Oxford, coach Hugh Freeze has higher expectations for Wallace in the up-tempo offense.
"We're a lot more comfortable in (the offense)," Freeze said Monday in his weekly media gathering. "We do have some young offensive linemen that are not used to it that we're going to have to play. They'll probably be much like the ones were last year. There are times this last week where I thought our tempo was good."
The Rebels can allow the young players to grow and mature. What the team cannot afford is an injury to Wallace, whose right shoulder was surgically repaired in the offseason. Players and coaches have said Wallace has been strong in fall workouts and appears back to normal.
"I see the arm has gotten stronger," wide receiver Donte Moncrief said. "The fade routes look good. The dig routes look good. He's got more power with his arm, and I'm looking forward to see what he can do with it in games."
Wallace always has played aggressively and on the edge. Despite the youth on the offensive line and playing in the nation's most aggressive conference, Wallace doesn't plan to alter a style of play that helped him throw for 2,994 yards last season. He also had 22 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
"I really know only one way to play the game," Wallace said. "Coach Freeze's offense is a perfect fit for me. We really have a comfort level out there now and everyone is ready to go. A lot of the players have worked hard during the offseason to go to another level. Now it's time to see what we got.
"But I am not going be timid, and I'm not going to play a different way. I know I have to make plays. I also know we have several talented playmakers and we got to get them the ball."
Wallace threw for a career-high 403 yards in a 27-26 loss to Vanderbilt in Oxford. The Rebels didn't commit a turnover and had 458 yards of total offense, but they couldn't hold a 23-6 second-half lead.
Vanderbilt has won three straight in the series, including each game played under coach James Franklin. The Commodores won nine games last season and -- like Ole Miss -- won a bowl game. The Commodores sealed the latest victory in the series with stellar defense in the red zone.
"They brought a ton of field pressures, which is very difficult to run against in some of the sets we like to run," Freeze said. "There are some ways to run against it if you want to take the time to doctor it up. You can't play fast and do that. The amount of pressures they were bringing against us kind of dictated what we would do.
"I've watched that game too many times to count. The difference in that game is we did not produce in the tight red zone. We'll give them credit. They had a good plan. All year long they were good in red-zone defense. We had to settle for way too many field goals."
Even though it was a loss, Wallace feels like the team grew tremendously and came away with a better understanding of what to do in critical situations. With four of its first give games on the road this season, a good start is critical.
"We will have to grow up really fast and be ready for the challenge," Wallace said. "It all starts with a good game plan and good execution in the first game. We don't really have time to ease into anything. You really don't ever want it to be easy. We have some high expectations for the season. It's just a matter of getting things started the right way."
Freeze was asked to restore confidence and pride in a program, which was winless in league play as recently as two seasons ago. The high expectations for Ole Miss don't reside within the fan base only. An opportunity to play in one of the nationally televised games on the opening night of the season proves other people want to see these Rebels.
"Playing a conference game to start the season is a huge challenge," Wallace said. "It's a big deal when you play a Thursday night game, and we get to do two of them (the other at Mississippi State). That is a sign that the program is turning heads. Now it's our job to back that up."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter