November 12, 2013 9:47:27 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
Last season, the Ole Miss football team surprised many by qualifying for a bowl game after a two-year absence.
Thanks to a 3-0 start this season, a second-straight bowl appearance was almost a foregone conclusion. After securing that bowl bid Saturday with a 34-24 victory against Arkansas, Ole Miss will use its final three regular-season games to enhance its bowl stock in hopes of landing a New Year's Day game.
Ole Miss (6-3) will take that first step at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPNU) when it plays host to Troy at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in its final non-conference game.
"We're very, very excited about being bowl eligible," Ole Miss assistant head coach Matt Luke said Monday at school's weekly media gathering. "We're excited for our players and our fans. Being bowl eligible two years in a row is part of our goals. I don't think we're satisfied, but obviously very excited about that. In some areas of the game we maybe played a little bit sluggish (against Arkansas). The guys stepped up and made enough plays to win."
Luke spoke at the media gathering in place of coach Hugh Freeze, who was attending to personal business.
In the fourth game of a six-game homestand, Ole Miss struggled against Arkansas, which remains in winless in conference play. The Rebels trailed 3-0 early but regrouped for a 20-10 halftime lead. Arkansas hit a couple of deep balls in the second half and stayed within striking range.
Offensively, Bo Wallace threw for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns against the conference's lowest-rated defense. Wallace's final passing yardage was changed to give him 9 more yards.
"This was a really important game because it was our sixth win," Wallace said. "We have a lot of higher goals than just playing in a bowl game. However, you can reach those higher goals until you get the six wins. On offense, we had a great game. The line blocked well and the receivers made some plays and go some things going."
After dropping the opener of the homestand to Texas A&M, Ole Miss upset of LSU. That momentum carried over to victories against Idaho and Arkansas to help the team raise its home record to 4-1.
"Any victory in the SEC is a good victory," Luke said. "We're very, very proud of that. We came out of the game relatively healthy. I believe (John) Youngblood got banged up and came out of the game early. He's probably questionable. Chief Brown got a stinger. He's probable. We're going to look at Jeff Scot and see if he can practice (today). We'll know more about that (today)."
Troy is one win away from bowl eligibility with a home game next week against Texas State remaining. It lost to Mississippi State 62-7 earlier in the season in Starkville. In its last game, Troy lost 41-36 at Louisiana-Lafayette in a Sun Belt Conference matchup.
"We're excited about playing Troy," Luke said. "I've got a lot of respect for Troy and coach (Larry) Blakeney. He always has a great program and does a great job. He's got a tremendous senior quarterback in (Corey) Robinson. He's very, very good. They've got a good receiver and running back. They're good on defense. They're impressive. They play a lot of man coverage and blitz a bunch. We're going to have our work cut out for us and have to do a really, really good job to beat those guys."
Ole Miss last played in back-to-back bowl games in 2008 and 2009. Each of those teams played in the Cotton Bowl. A strong finish against Troy, Missouri, and archrival MSU could allow for another similar national stage in January.
"The confidence level is good," Luke said. "The guys are excited about going to a bowl game, but I don't think that they're satisfied. Not that they expected it, but they expect more of themselves. We want to finish playing our best football. That's our challenge coming out this week in practice. This next game should be our best game because it should be our most experienced and our most game ready. Some of those older guys are stepping up, and the young guys have some experience under their belt. Hopefully we'll play our best football these last three games of the regular season."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter