OXFORD • The vision unfolded before him, so close that Matt Luke could almost touch it.
But you can’t really touch a vision, and it went poof! – vanishing in the cruelest sort of way when Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee fumbled.
Texas A&M linebacker Buddy Johnson was there to scoop up the football and run 62 yards for a touchdown to give the Aggies a lead they’d never give up.
“It made me sick to my stomach that we didn’t win the game,” said Luke, the Rebels’ third-year coach.
Ole Miss hasn’t won this game and many others since navigating the waters of NCAA sanctions and has been described as a team that is learning how to win, an education made more challenging by the number of true freshman players like Plumlee and others.
Collectively they’ve made big plays. They’ve put the Rebels in position to where Luke believes Ole Miss is at the doorstep of success, but they haven’t made the biggest plays at the biggest times.
“It’s one or two plays here or there. That’s what makes it so tough. We’re close. We’re coming,” Luke said.
Eight of the 11 regulars on the Ole Miss offense, while not all freshmen, are in their first season as starters. Five fit that description on defense.
Ole Miss has seen 84.6 percent of its 3,068 yards of total offense gained by freshmen.
Six different true freshmen or redshirt freshmen have started at least one game this season, three on each side of the ball.
Two of the most visible freshmen have been backup running backs Jerrion Ealy and Jarod “Snoop” Conner. Ealy was a widely known five-star recruit out of Jackson, Conner a Power Five afterthought out of Hattiesburg.
They, like their teammates, are trying to learn to win at the college level.
Ole Miss, 3-5 during this open week, has won two SEC games this season, just three over the last two years. Those three wins have come against Arkansas (twice) and Vanderbilt, teams that are a combined 4-20 in conference play in that same window.
Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre applies his favorite lesson from Super Bowl-winning NFL coach Bill Parcells to the “how do you learn to win question.”
“When I coached for coach Parcells he used to always say that knowledge equals confidence equals playing fast,” MacIntyre said. “What he meant by that was if they have knowledge and understand their position, understand all the fundamentals of it, understand how it can be attacked, then it gives them confidence to correct things during the game. You react correctly, then you play really fast and make plays.”
Luke’s translation is “attention to detail.”
The end result for the Rebels, their coaches believe, is that learning how to win is done in practice, repeating the same plays and techniques over and over in the proper manner. It’s something players often say after tough losses like the 24-17 setback against Texas A&M when the question is how do you learn to win.
“I don’t have the right answer for that,” running back Scottie Phillips said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and trust it.”
While focus and effort in practice are the cornerstone of improvement, game action for players is also important.
“When you’re young and haven’t played a lot it’s like on fast forward, but when it slows down, now you see something and you notice that, ‘Wow, that tailback’s a little wider. He’s probably going to go on a wheel route,” MacIntyre said. “Those types of things I think help you garner how to win, and then you make a play or two and it makes the difference in a game.”