OXFORD – After an August with confidence in how good they could be, the Ole Miss defensive players were tired of hearing how good they aren’t.
The Rebels’ best game of the season came without their best defensive player – Robert Nkemdiche – and was due in large part to more spirited play in the secondary.
Tackling was much improved, but so was positioning in the secondary as the Rebels held Texas A&M to 192 total yards and a 12 for 34 passing performance from quarterback Kyle Allen.
“I told them at halftime, ‘You look like a totally different defense.’ They were executing, flying around … doing the things I knew they could do,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said.
Allen played at less than full strength after taking a hit on his shoulder the previous week against Alabama.
The Rebels, though, had struggled with good quarterbacks, having been picked apart by Florida’s Will Grier and Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, who combined passed for 77 percent accuracy in the Rebels’ two losses.
Memphis wide receivers often had more than ample room to make plays as Lynch found them time and again on deep out routes.
Ole Miss played more press coverage and coach Hugh Freeze said the positioning of his defensive backs was much better against the Aggies.
Senior safety Trae Elston had a career-high five pass break-ups and on Monday was named SEC defensive player of the week.
Cornerback Tony Bridges, who arrived from Gulf Coast Community College with high expectations and immediately settled into a starting role, was unhappy with his individual performance at Memphis.
Seven days later, Bridges had four tackles and a pass break-up, and even when he didn’t figure into the box score he seemed in position to make plays.
“That was big, big, big, big. He got his confidence back,” Elston said. “That’s what we really need for all the secondary players. He played a great game and showed a lot of excitement.”
Half of Allen’s 88 passing yards came on one long completion.
Scaling back play calls to just a handful was another factor in the group’s success.
“There were two opportunities for them to have explosive plays that they didn’t make,” Freeze said. “The rest of the time we were in good position. There were a lot of times where there weren’t any options to throw the football.”
Ole Miss goes into this week’s game at Auburn No. 4 in the SEC and No. 29 nationally in pass defense efficiency. The Rebels are second in the SEC with 11 interceptions.
Wommack says confidence has returned.
“It’s kind of been like that this year. You beat Alabama, and you don’t feel great. You know you can play better than you did against Alabama. I was just really excited to see them play for 60 minutes. That was the best defense we’ve played this year by far.”