Four Downs: No. 18 Ole Miss overcomes sloppy start, pulls past Boise State
AUG 29, 2014 12:52a ET
ATLANTA -- With 458 yards of offense and a 22-point opening-week win, No. 18 Ole Miss met the hype, at least in terms of the raw figures.
The reality wasn't quite as impressive, as the Rebels struggled with Boise State, needing to shake off a mistake-filled first half in a 35-13 victory Thursday that brought with it elements both impressive (that defense) and alarming (Bo Wallace's miscues).
"(It was) hard to watch for 2 1/2 quarters," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. "We got into a decent rhythm there in the last part of the game and found a way to score enough points to win. Give them credit for that." Here are four takeaways from the Georgia Dome:
1. Wallace's decision-making remains a concern
Bo Wallace rolled to his right, and with two Boise State defenders bearing down on him, flung the ball out toward the right -- and into the arms of a Broncos player backup standing on the sideline.
It was that kind of night for the Ole Miss quarterback early on, as he began the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game with two straight delay of game penalties, then went on to throw three first-half interceptions.
He threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Cody Core in the first quarter, then tossed three in the fourth -- a 14-yarder to Laquon Treadwell (who had a monster game with seven receptions for 103 yards), one to Quincy Adeboyejo for 31 yards and hit Cody Core for a 76-yard strike -- in finishing 25 of 36 for 386 yards. But it was Wallace's mistakes that stood out, because they always have with the Rebels passer.
"Two of those three interceptions were just unbelievable to us, because they weren't even in his progression," said Freeze. "He'll be the first to tell you that and he knows that. It was a bit amazing. He was a little out of sync, but I thought he really played well in the second half."
Wallace entered the season as the SEC's top returning passer after throwing for 3,346 yards in 2013 to go along with 18 TDs, but he was ninth in the league as a junior with a 138.1 rating due to a penchant for making bad decisions.
He tossed 10 interceptions, including five over the last three game -- three of those came in the Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State -- and that came after 17 picks during his sophomore season.
Wallace spent the offseason saying he'd changed. At SEC Media Days, he said he'd overhauled his mechanics after surgery on his right throwing shoulder by working with major league pitcher-turned QB guru Tom House.
But that Wallace began the year by looking just as problematic as he ended last season (his INT total is now at 30 in 27 career games, or one every 28 pass attempts) is worrisome for a Rebels team that looked poised to challenge for an SEC West title.
"I don't know if he's pressing too hard ... I mean, how many times was the question asked 'How is Bo Wallace and what do you expect of him,''" Freeze said. "He wants to do so well and have such a great year .. and he felt like we had to press a little bit."
The Broncos were 88th against the pass a year ago and brought back eight starters, but Wallace struggled mightily against them. He may be able to rebound with Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette and Memphis in the coming weeks, but a Oct. 4 date with Alabama that was poised to be the Rebels' proving ground now looks potentially treacherous for Wallace.
2. Rebels' defense looks to be its true strength
Robert Nkemdiche set the tone, leveling Broncos QB Grant Hendrick in the first quarter as the Rebels defense supplied big hit (see Prewitt, Cody) after big hit (see Conner, Tony) -- one of which resulted in the first targeting ejection of the season -- and had four picks.
While the Broncos had 399 yards, most of those came with the game out of hand, and the Rebels limited running back Jay Ajayi, who was being touted as a fringe Heisman Trophy contender after rolling for 1,425 yards and 18 scores last season, to 88 yards on 20 carries.
"I thought our defense played physical and hit and ran to the ball," Freeze said.
The 13 points were the fewest the Rebels had allowed in 11 games dating back to a 31-13 win over Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 7, 2013.
As impressive as the physicality of Ole Miss was -- it was, to a fault, as linebacker Serderius Bryant was booted seven minutes, 35 seconds into the game for a hit on Hendrick -- it was opportunistic.
The Broncos were in position to take advantage of Wallace's first pick as they drove down to the Rebels' 3-yard line as QB Hendrick hit Ajayi for a 32-yard gain and Matt Miller for 22 yards.
But on third-and-goal, with two Ole Miss defenders trailing him, Hendrick lofted the ball into the end zone and Senquez Golson pulled down a one-handed interception.
Then, with the Rebels leading 14-6 in the fourth quarter, Conner grabbed another pick that would be turned into a 31-yard Adeboyejo TD reception.
But the reality is, it's difficult to put too much stock in the Rebels' performance against the Broncos because ...
3. Boise State is far removed from glory days
The Georgia Dome was the site of one of the biggest victories in Broncos history as Kellen Moore and Co. beat No. 19 Georgia 35-21 en route to rising to No. 5 ranking.
Kicker Dan Goodale is still there. A freshman on that team that beat the Bulldogs, he hit field goals of 25 and 43 yards, and coach Bryan Harsin-- the former offensive coordinator under Chris Petersen who spent last year as Arkansas State's head coach -- is back.
But the Broncos, a few months removed from their worst season since 1998, were dealt another humbling loss in an opener. Coupled with a loss to Washington a year ago, Boise State has been outscored 73-19 in Week 1.
The defense, at least up front, should be good enough to compete for a Mountain West title. Committed to stopping the run, the Broncos allowed just 2.1 yards per carry, but that put them into some one-on-one situations in the secondary that Wallace took advantage of.
Offensively, Harsin found frustration in an inability to punch it in, as the Broncos had first-and-goal as the Ole Miss 1-yard line in the second quarter and had to settle for a field goal.
"(We're) disappointed because we didn't win," Harsin said. "That's what we came here to do: we came here to win, bottom line. We're not going to sit there and make excuses for not going out there and winning the ballgame. That's not what we do."
This much is clear: the Broncos hardly look like the team that was knocking off Power 5 programs on a regular basis.
4. Sloppy, sloppy start
Wallace's delay of game penalties were only the beginning as the Rebels were flagged for seven false-starts in the first half.
In all, the Rebels drew 14 penalties for 78 yards, while Boise had nine for 73.
"We never could get into sync because we were behind the chains the whole time," Freeze said.
Flags were a bit of a problem for the Rebels a year ago as they ranked 64th with 5.54 per game, but the Thursday night total was alarming for the Broncos given that they were 14th in '13 (4.15).
Chalk it up to opening-game jitters, but the crowd noise wasn't to blame. The announced crowd of 32,823 didn't even force the Georgia Dome to open up the upper bowl of seating.