Should interceptions, false starts create misgivings for Rebels' season?
ATLANTA — Believe it or not, Ole Miss walked out of the Georgia Dome with a trophy, or two pieces of one.
This is not the newly minted College Football Playoff trophy, by any means. It’s not even the Floyd of Rosedale.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game awards an old-style leather helmet on a stand The trophy indeed comes in two pieces, so when linebacker Ryan Lewis walked into the locker room with the stand and receiver Laquon Treadwell followed with the leather helmet on his head, they did not break said trophy.
That was Ole Miss in its opener: Not quite together and looking a little ridiculous, but with a trophy and a win nonetheless.
The final score looked the way should have — Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13 — but the first game showed Ole Miss isn’t quite ready to hoist any other trophies.
Two bowl victories, a climb from two wins to seven to eight and a stud signing class maturing into sophomores seemed to have the Rebels on the move in the SEC. But the forward progress of Ole Miss’ program sputtered for three quarters in Atlanta.
The weight of expectations was apparent. Treadwell said he was more relaxed before last year’s opener, his debut as a freshman in an SEC road opener against Vanderbilt, than he was Thursday.
“I had jitters, too,” Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace said. “I got a little nervous, so I don’t know. Usually I’m cool. I don’t know what that was.”
Good thing Wallace eventually found his cool. Good thing Boise State was the uglier team Thursday. And the Broncos needed an effort to out-ugly Ole Miss in a game that featured seven total interceptions, 23 total penalties and an early ejection for targeting.
After Thursday night’s events, the team playing the role of SEC West usurper seems to be coming from College Station, not Oxford.
Ole Miss didn’t produce more scores (four) than turnovers (three) until the 7:45 mark of the four quarter. By that time, Boise State had thrown four picks of its own.
Now this is all before the first Saturday of the season, plenty of time for Ole Miss to find its stride, which it did after the final Grant Hedrick pick broke the will of Boise State in a 28-7 Ole Miss fourth quarter.
Certainly, Ole Miss showed flashes of brilliance. The No. 1 prospect from 2013, Robert Nkemdiche, is becoming the next great SEC mega-lineman, the back end of the defense played with an edge, and the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell proved to be a mismatch.
At the same time, Ole Miss made clear Thursday that one big-time recruiting class, a preseason ranking and two-years of buzz does not make a powerhouse program.
The most experienced quarterback in the SEC at times had coach Hugh Freeze grimacing on the sideline with three first-half interceptions.
“Two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable because they weren’t even in his progression on the route,” Freeze said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that, and he knows that. It was a bit amazing.”
At one point late in the first half, Wallace overthrew Boise State’s safeties by five yards. The intended receiver — a term that generously appeared in the play-by-play — was Treadwell, who was at least 10 yards underneath the safeties.
Wallace was only a symptom of an Ole Miss offense barely ready for a Boise State game in its first game under Bryan Harsin.
The Rebels picked up seven false starts in the first half, exacerbated by Boise State shifting before Wallace went to a silent count at the line. The run game was a no-show as Ole Miss rushed for 30 yards on 23 carries in three quarters. The Rebels didn’t have a run longer than five yards until the final two carries of the third quarter.
The score sat at 7-6 for the Rebels until Wallace started to find Treadwell in man-to-man coverage on a critical drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got to be on the level where it’s understood where if they’re good, they can beat us,” Treadwell said. “That’s the difference in this team. The defense played well and didn’t underestimate them. The offense came out and tried to do too much.”