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VOL. 131 | NO. 196 | Friday, September 30, 2016

Can Tigers Duplicate Their 2015 Upset of Ole Miss?

By Don Wade

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Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, predictably, is saying that he won’t use revenge as a main motivator.

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze says he isn’t thinking revenge when the Rebels host the Memphis Tigers on Saturday, Oct. 1, but it’s an important contest for both football programs.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

First-year University of Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, just as predictably, is emphasizing that this is “just the next step, just the next game, the next focus” and says, “No question about it, it’s a huge game because it’s the next game. (But) the outcome of this game this week will not be the determining factor of this season.”

And yet there is no forgetting last year’s game by either side: Memphis 37, Ole Miss 24, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The Tigers wiped out a 14-0 deficit, and tight end Alan Cross said afterward he never worried because when he looked around the sideline he saw that, “We’ve still got that look in our eye.”

Quarterback Paxton Lynch, who threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns, took two first-half sacks but was laughing afterward and saying, “I got hit harder in that pile (postgame) than I did during the whole game, what with all those fans hitting my head.”

This year’s starting quarterback, Riley Ferguson, should be so lucky.

The school names and colors may have remained the same, but otherwise the Tigers are walking into different circumstances when this game kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

By record, Ole Miss is just 2-2 and 1-1 in the SEC. They lost at home to top-ranked Alabama 48-43 and blasted No. 25 Georgia in Oxford last week 45-14. Their other loss came to Florida State, 3-1 and now ranked 12th, in the season’s opening week.

So impressive have the Rebels been against elite competition they are still No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the only two-loss team in the poll.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tigers’ 77-3 drubbing of Bowling Green last week, Norvell said of Ole Miss: “We know we are going to play arguably the most talented team in the country. They have had two 21-point leads against Top-10 teams in the country. We know there is going to be a great challenge in front of us.”

And that’s true even if you don’t buy into the notion the Rebels want payback. Freeze can publicly dismiss the idea all he wants, but players have a way of letting the truth come out.

When Rebels tight end Evan Engram spoke to the media on Monday of this week he admitted that last year’s loss to Memphis rewrote the season’s script.

“That was the turning point for us last year, honestly,” said Engram, noting that the Rebels already had beaten Alabama. “Nobody has stopped our offense since that game. We’ve been a great team all around since that game. So that was definitely kind of a kick in the butt as far as getting us on the right track.”

The Tigers, through three victories over Southeast Missouri, Kansas and Bowling Green, have been dominant: a combined score of 155-27 and Memphis ranks second in FBS with a turnover margin of +8; the Tigers are tied for fourth in the country with 11 forced turnovers.

But Ole Miss has perhaps the SEC’s best quarterback in Chad Kelly, a future NFL tight end in Engram, and a stable of talented wide receivers. Not to mention a larger offensive line with more depth.

“They have great length at the wide receiver position,” Norvell said. “Evan Engram is a special talent and they do a lot of different things with him. Their quarterback is a guy that can make a lot of different throws. He can use his legs to extend plays. They are big up front.”

The challenge before Memphis is perhaps even larger when the Tigers have the ball. They struggled, after all, to generate a running game against FCS foe Southeast Missouri. And at times Ferguson has not always gotten rid of the ball in a timely manner and taken sacks that maybe wouldn’t have to be taken.

Beyond that, the offensive line depth chart continues to change weekly and could be overmatched by the Rebels’ defensive front. Those players remember last year, too.

“Beat us fair and square,” Ole Miss defensive end John Youngblood said. “We’re hoping to take care of business this year.”

Senior Memphis defensive back Chris Morley downplayed the gigantic step up in competition for the Tigers.

“It’s not about them. It’s about us,” said Morley, echoing the most popular players’ cliché of our time. Whatever happens, happens.”

Freeze’s promise is what won’t happen. Ole Miss won’t overlook the Memphis game.

“Should have our full attention,” Freeze said.

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