First Down: Tigers Lose Big to Ole Miss 

As the clock shuffled down toward zero late in the fourth quarter and Ole Miss up on the University of Memphis 38-14, the rain started coming down and Tigers athletic director R.C. Johnson was stalking the sideline in a blue suit, looking like somebody kicked his dog. The drops grew heavier, and Johnson took cover in the south tunnel at the Liberty Bowl. The Sunday afternoon of college football — a rare event for a Lord’s Day — was finally coming to an end. The Rebels would score one last time, with six seconds left, delivering a final, 45-14 beating to the Tigers. Jesus is a Tiger fan, but his rainy tears were ineffectual. Even he can’t figure out what to do with the damn squad.

click to enlarge Houston Nutt: Unbusted
  • Houston Nutt: Unbusted

Ole Miss came into the game ranked eight in the preseason AP bowl. Returning quarterback Jevan Snead and head coach Houston Nutt are in their second campaign, and following a trouncing of Texas Tech in last season’s Cotton Bowl, the Rebels come into this year ostensibly set to compete for the Southeastern Conference-West division title.

The U of M enters the 2009 season after finishing 6-7 last year, including a defeat at the hands of University of South Florida in the magicJack St. Petersburn Bowl. Head coach Tommy West is 47-51 at Memphis and 2-5 against Ole Miss.

Memphis-Ole Miss has become a season-opening tradition; the Rebels have opened against Memphis 36 times, more than they have any other team. Ole Miss has also won the last four meetings. But you can throw 0-0 records out the window when these two play each other. Last year’s 17-point Rebel victory aside, this game has been decided by differences of 2, 3, 4, 7, and 10 points in the last six years.

The first quarter looked like a match-up of mercury versus molasses. The Rebels looked SEC fast, and the Tigers looked inept bordering on self-destructive. Memphis lost 11 yards on its first series, which included a reverse that the defense sniffed out and a weird jumpshot screen that went nowhere. Ole Miss streaked to a 10-zip lead, while Memphis worked in reverse. After the game, coach Tommy West said, “The first two series, I think I guys were a little bit too jacked up.” And then some. If they gave negative scores …

And then, magically, Memphis got into the game. Deante Lamar picked off Sneed at midfield and returned the ball to the Ole Miss 25. Three plays later, Memphis running back Curtis Steele punched it in from two yards out on a direct snap. Ole Miss 10, Memphis 7.

It was as close as the Tigers would get, though they were competitive until the start of the fourth quarter.

With 41 seconds left in the first half, Ole Miss’ Fon Ingram intercepted Arkelon Hall and returned the ball 38 yards for the TD and a 17-7 lead. Still, coming into the second half, the Ole Miss offense didn’t look like they wanted to be there. Whatever it was, if Memphis could’ve put together a scoring drive in the third quarter, the game might’ve wound up differently. Instead, the fourth quarter happened, with Memphis down by 10, until they were down by 17. Brief sunshine with a Steele five-yard run to bring the deficit back to 10, then Ole Miss got two Snead TD passes in less than a minute and the rout was on. Memphis’ defense was pretty good, until it wasn’t. Ole Miss’ offense was poor. Until it wasn’t.

On paper, Heisman Trophy candidate Jevan Snead is the best QB Houston Nutt has ever had. But the way Nutt play-calls, it’s like he doesn’t want to have a dynamic passing game. The high-water mark of Nutt’s offense was the Wild Hog at Arkansas, run with the backfield tandem Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and no real QB. With the Wild Rebel being occasionally run, the Ole Miss offense bogged down without Snead in there. Snead struggled to get into a rhythm, and he finished the game 12 for 22 for 175 yards, though much of that came in the explosive final frame, when Memphis’ defense was done playing. Jevan Snead will be a Heisman contender over Houston Nutt’s dead body. (Devil’s advocate: also turned in a mediocre game last year against Memphis and went on to have a fine season.) Also damning: At least through the third quarter, the team could’ve swapped QBs and the score might have been the same. This does not bode well for the Rebels.

If Memphis can take any positives away, the chief will be the play of the defense. Excepting the run-up-the-score, the Tigers D continued to stand up the ball carrier in rushes up the middle, and the secondary was only somewhat suspect and mostly Rebel-resistant. This despite major deficiencies in speed and athleticism. “We played good enough defense to have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter,” West said after the game. The Tigers offense is woeful, of course. They have a quality RB tandem in Steele and Lance Smith and a nice receiver corp, led by Duke Calhoun — today taking over the career-receptions record at the U of M — and with some promise with freshman Marcus Rucker and tall-guy senior Carlos Singleton.

Some Tiger fans printed up shirts that said Memphis was gonna “Bust a Nutt.” In the balance, Ole Miss made sure the real theme was Nutting a Bust. They better do better when they begin SEC games. The play on the field today was not SEC football, and it certainly wasn’t top-ten football.

Memphis’ American Idol Alexis Grace gave a gorgeous National Anthem, and at kickoff, the temp was 82 degrees and the crowd was a Tiger majority, though there were tons of Rebels and tons of empty seats reflecting gray in the sunlight.

Next week, Memphis gets Middle Tennessee State. “You put everything into it, and then you’ve got to play again the next week,” West said. “That’s this game. That’s life, really. You put everything into it and it doesn’t always go your way. You give it every dadgum thing you’ve got, and I think we did. I don’t think anybody out there wasn’t trying. You put everything in it and you’ve got to be man enough to face up and go again the next week.”

As for the Rebels, well, on the bright side, Tiger alum can take comfort in the fact that one day they’ll be serving the Rebels burgers and fries. Oh, wait, that came out wrong. N

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