Tennessee Stat Book
OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi has struggled this season partly because of a young defense that’s given up too many big plays. Tennessee’s newcomers on offense have led to much of its woes.
On Saturday, one group’s going to take a much-needed step forward while the other takes some more lumps in the unforgiving Southeastern Conference.
Ole Miss (4-5, 1-4 SEC) travels to Tennessee (3-6, 0-5) on Saturday in a game crucial to the Rebels’ bowl eligibility chances. The Rebels must win two of their last three games to be eligible for postseason play for the third straight season.
UM’s problems can almost all be traced back to a porous defense that ranks last in the SEC, giving up 33 points per game. But there was reason for hope during last week’s 43-21 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Rebels held the Ragin’ Cajuns scoreless in the second half with several young players who have seen increased playing time.
Freshman Mike Marry started at middle linebacker in place of injured senior Jonathan Cornell and performed well, leading the Rebels with 11 tackles against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“It was good to see,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “With a first start you never know how a young guy will react, and boy he did some good things. He’s a physical guy, a physical player.”
Sophomore D.T. Shackelford, who only weighs about 235 pounds, has been forced to move to defensive end from linebacker because there’s been so many injuries along the defensive line. He played the position some in high school, and said it wasn’t a hard transition.
“Once you get on the field it all goes back city league football,” Shackelford said. “You see the ball, so go get it.”
The Rebels will be trying to stop a UT offense that started five true freshmen on offense in last weekend’s dominating 50-14 victory against Memphis.
“We’re definitely improving by eliminating the penalties, the false starts and stuff,” junior tailback Tauren Poole said. “We’re starting to grow as an offense. It’s taken time, but we’re seeing improvements every single day. We knew it would happen but that it would just take time.”
Another clear improvement is at quarterback. Freshman Tyler Bray, who will make his second career start on Saturday, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on his first attempt against South Carolina on Oct. 30. Since then, he’s completed 28 of 47 passes for 484 yards and seven touchdowns without turning the ball over.
“I think he’s taken a lot better approach week-to-week in understanding a game plan, that sort of thing,” coach Derek Dooley said. “I still don’t know if he knows what coverage the other team plays. It drives coach (Darin) Hinshaw crazy, but it doesn’t bother me at all. He just sees an open guy or a covered guy and knows where to place the ball. I’m good with that.”
One area where the growth has been slower is on the offensive line, which is one of only two in the nation to start as many as three true freshmen. Injuries to an already depleted line have forced Dooley to shift players before every game, and the Vols have struggled with consistency because of it.
This week won’t be any different. Freshman offensive guard Zach Fulton is expected to miss Saturday’s game after injuring his ankle at Memphis.
“We’ve had a lot of progress individually with our offensive linemen, but you go through the season, we’ve played with two left tackles, three left guards, three centers and two right guards, and it’s hard to get continuity,” Dooley said. “Those guys have to work together, and it’s just hard.”