No. 11 Mississippi leans on strong defense

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OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's offense is a little inconsistent and the special teams suddenly have some problems.

But through four games, one thing has been clear: These 11th-ranked Rebels are capable of playing outstanding defense.

Ole Miss (4-0) ranks third nationally and first in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense, giving up just 8.5 points per game. The Rebels held Memphis to just 104 total yards in a 24-3 victory on Saturday night.

"We have worked really hard for three years and it's paying off," Ole Miss senior safety Cody Prewitt said after Saturday's game. "I'm really excited about where we are. Tonight, on defense, we had a really solid game. We really see what potential we have and the things we can reach."

Now the schedule is about to get much, much tougher as the Rebels start their slog through the brutal SEC Western Division. The Rebels host No. 3 Alabama (4-0) this Saturday in the biggest home game in a decade.

Ole Miss will also face Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU before October is over. It's a stretch that should go a long way toward determining if the Rebels are an actual SEC contender.

Their defense should give them a chance. It's a group that's a mix of veterans and younger guys, former five-star recruits and unheralded no-names.

The 6-foot-2, 217-pound Prewitt has been at Ole Miss since 2011, which was the brutal final season under coach Houston Nutt that saw the Rebels finish with a 2-10 record.

Three years later, it's a different story. New coach Hugh Freeze brought in veteran defensive coordinator Dave Wommack in 2012, and the Ole Miss defense has steadily improved. Prewitt was an All-American last season and anchors the secondary.

Wommack said the entire defense is playing well right now, but it's the line that's creating the most havoc.

C.J. Johnson and Robert Nkemdiche are the big names up front — former highly rated recruits who are performing at an elite level.

But it's the depth that makes the group most dangerous. The biggest play during Saturday's win was when backup freshman Marquis Haynes smashed into Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, forcing a fumble that was picked up by Issac Gross. Gross is listed as a third-team player on the depth chart.

The turnover set up a short touchdown drive for the offense.

"There's no question with any team in this league — if you don't have a defensive line you have no chance," Wommack said. "And we've been able to develop some depth there. We're playing about 11 guys so we can keep them fresh and keep them going."

Ole Miss has nine interceptions through four games, including three by senior cornerback Senquez Golson. Wommack says the group is physically talented, but it's the players' desire to learn and mental approach that is most exciting.

"These kids are listening and they want to do better," Wommack said. "They feel different about themselves."

Freeze admitted the win over Memphis was difficult for a few reasons. He said the Tigers are a much-improved team and that it was also hard to avoid the incessant talk about the coming showdown with Alabama.

Thanks to the defense, the Rebels can finally concentrate on the biggest home game in Oxford since LSU and Ole Miss met with the SEC Western Division title on the line in 2003.

"Now everybody can do whatever talking they want to do," Freeze said.


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