As Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson crossed the goal line to cap a 99-yard touchdown drive with 3:36 left in the third quarter, Ole Miss found itself in an embarrassingly familiar position.
Moments earlier, the Rebels had extended their lead to 27-7 on the opening drive of the second half and forced a three-and-out that should have put the game away. The Tigers pulled off an unconventional fake punt, though, and found the end zone three plays later, keeping their comeback hopes alive. Ferguson’s ensuing touchdown scamper finished a drive that began at the Memphis 1. It forced reality to set in for an Ole Miss team that was in position to blow its third three-touchdown lead in five games this season.
The situation perpetuated a common theme for the Rebels in 2016: an inability to bury opponents when given the opportunity. This time, they responded in convincing fashion, opting to rally and regain control rather than wilting in the face of adversity.
Ole Miss scored two unanswered touchdowns, and just like that, was cruising to a 48-28 victory.
“Offensively, we answered when we needed to,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “We had two drives that we messed up…Outside of that, I thought we were efficient for most of the night. We were very balanced for most of the night, which makes us very good.”
Very good might be an understatement — there is an argument to be made that Ole Miss was at its best on Saturday.
This proclamation may seem a little extreme just a week removed from a 45-14 beatdown of Georgia, but not so much beyond the surface. The reason: The Rebels delivered what was by far their most complete performance of the season, presenting a scary proposition to the rest of the SEC.
Ole Miss has always displayed the potential to light up the scoreboard behind the arm, and legs, of senior quarterback Chad Kelly. On Saturday, a new dimension to the offense was unveiled.
The Rebels had not produced a 100-yard rusher at the running back position since week four of last season. Against Memphis, they had two.
Junior Eugene Brazley finished the day with 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, including a 32-yard score late in the fourth quarter that sealed an Ole Miss victory. Senior Akeem Judd would add a modest 108 yards on 15 touches.
This newly-found balance within the offense is exactly what Ole Miss needs as it attempts to run the table and carve out an unlikely spot in the College Football Playoff picture.
Heading into the game, Ole Miss rushers not named Chad Kelly had compiled just 398 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry. It cannot be understated how promising this group’s recent showing is. The backfield production on Saturday, as well as the team’s convincing finish, paint the picture of a offense that is shifting away from the one-dimensional tendencies that hurt them in losses to Florida State and Alabama.
The Rebels still remain a flawed team with undeniable weaknesses. Offensive line play has broken down against top-tier opponents, an issue that will not subside with a single strong performance. The defense has some serious concerns as well, with the recent suspension of DeMarquis Gates gashing an already-suspect linebacker corps.
After a pair of early collapses seemed to derail the current season, Ole Miss has made it clear that it is not giving up on 2016 just yet.