Ole Miss is 5-3 for the second straight year, as it enters its second bye week of the year before a final four-game stretch starting with Arkansas on Nov. 9 from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The previous stretch of games included three straight losses, then back-to-back wins over then-No. 6 LSU and Idaho.
"We could easily have a couple more wins, and we could easily have a couple more losses," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "You're mind usually concentrates on the ones you let get away, but you have to move on from those. Winning the last two games has helped tremendously with that. I believe we have gotten better at mostly every spot."
"(5-3 this year) feels a lot different because we have been through the meat of our schedule," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said "But at the same time, every SEC team is great, and we know we can't take a week off, or somebody will come up and beat you."
Entering the bye week, Freeze said he does think they can get quite a few of players back who didn't suffer season-ending injuries.
"I'm confident that Mike Hilton will be back, as well as Isaac Gross being healthy," Freeze said. "Charles Sawyer, we'll hold out this week and Denzel Nkemdiche, we held out the other night, and I see no reason for him to not be ready. Robert Nkemdiche and Jeff Scott, I'll need to wait until next Monday to better answer that, but we're hopeful on them. Carlos Thompson, I am doubtful on, we're getting concerned on his nerve not firing in his arm, so hopefully we can catch on soon and he'll be back in a couple of weeks."
Preparation for Arkansas will start on Thursday, Freeze said, and they will get in an extra practice on Sunday night.
"This week will certainly help that because we'll need those guys for this stretch run that we have coming up with the three SEC games and the one out of conference game," Freeze said. "It gives us coaches a lot of time to start self-scouting us, and give us a jump start against Arkansas and scouting other opponents, as well as plan what we would like to add, take out or just plan a little differently. We'll also get a chance to look at some young guys in practice too, and get us some depth."
A win over Arkansas would make the Rebels bowl eligible for the second straight year under Freeze. In this week's bowl projections, Greg Ostendorf from ESPN has Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl, while Jerry Palm from CBS Sports has them in the Gator Bowl.
"We all want to win these games, and let all that care of itself," Wallace said. "We know if we win these games, we'll be in a big-time bowl. And that's our goal. Our goal is not just getting to a bowl game this year; it's going to a big bowl game. It's taking that next step for our program."
"A few guys talk about it but not too often," junior defensive tackle Bryon Bennett said. "We try to keep a narrow focus and not look at the big picture. We know a lot of our remaining games are home, which is always an advantage for us with the energy and excitement."
Wallace, Brunetti Improve Decision-Making
Last year, Wallace threw 22 touchdown passes compared to 17 interceptions. Through eight games year, he has thrown 11 touchdowns to three interceptions. His interception ratio (interceptions per pass attempt) improvement from last year to this year ranks second in the SEC and sixth nationally.
Wallace also ranks fifth in the SEC and 31st nationally in total offense (266.2 ypg) and 5th in the SEC and 36th nationally in passing (247.0). His backup, senior Barry Brunetti, has completed 12-of-15 passes for 129 yards and five touchdowns in his last five games.
"It's been an on-going endeavor since last spring," Freeze said. "I think Dan Werner has done a really nice job of decreasing the package so there is no question of what to do and a clear understanding of what your read should be. As the year has gone on we continue to cut back to make sure we put ourselves in position to take care of the ball and there should be no reason for us to not have great understanding of exactly what you're supposed to do and when.
"I have to give a lot of credit to Dan Werner, as well as those two kids (Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti). We must always take care of the football, and we've done a good job putting an emphasis on that also. We've also been able to run the ball, which is a huge thing for anyone that understands what our offense is like. When you're able to run the ball it gives you a little more time to throw, and the decisions become better."
Wallace's improved decision-making has even been apparent to him mid-play during games this year.
"It's just better decisions," Wallace said. "There have been a couple times rolling out, especially against LSU, I was thinking middle of the play, 'Last year, I probably try to fit the ball in there,' but then continuing to run and try to do as much as I can without trying to do too much. That has really helped me out."
Bennett Settling In At Defensive End
After playing the first five games, including two starts at defensive tackle, junior Bryon Bennett has started each of the past three game at defensive end, due in part to a season-ending injury to junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, as well as injuries to freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and junior defensive end Carlos Thompson.
"He likes defensive end," Freeze said. "He's played two really solid games there. He's a physical guy. His motor turns up out there, it seems like. Moving forward, it will be interesting for us to look at what the best combination is and how to go about getting our best players on the field. I have been as pleased as I have been in my year and a half with him."
In the last two games, Bennett has three tackles including a solo tackle and a tackle for loss. With Bennett at defensive end, the defense has recorded five sacks in those games, including a season-high three sacks against LSU.
"It's exciting," said Bennett, of defensive end. "There's more room to roam around. I have to back further off the ball to make sure I'm not offside. Other than that, it's a lot of fun."
Bennett said took about two or three practice to adjust to playing defensive end. He gave credit to senior offensive tackles Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton, as well as freshman offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, whom he faced in practice. The two biggest adjustments, he said, were his positioning and how he rushed the passer.
"I have to make sure I maintain my outside presence," Bennett said. "To pass rush, I have to run a lot more. Inside, it's a few steps and then you make a move. On the end, you have to run the edge and make sure the quarterback can't bounce outside the pocket."