No. 16 Ole Miss strives to avenge 2015 loss to Memphis
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze downplayed any thoughts of revenge as his No. 16 Rebels prepare to host undefeated Memphis on Saturday.
It's hard to imagine, though, the memory of Memphis' 37-24 upset victory over Ole Miss midway through the 2015 season -- derailing any hope the Rebels had of reaching the College Football Playoff -- won't creep into at least some of their heads.
"We won't get into talking about we've got to do this (year) because of last year -- I am not a big fan of that," Freeze said. "Hopefully our kids will understand it is an important game and is one that should have our full attention for sure."
Ole Miss (2-2) is flying high after a 45-14 thumping of Georgia last week that dropped the Bulldogs from 13th to 25th in the Associated Press poll and served as a strong bounce-back effort following a 48-43 loss to top-ranked Alabama the week before.
"When you lose games like that and felt like you could have won, and when you have to hear about it in this world with all of the social media world, it hurts. It stings," Freeze said. "This one (Georgia) is pretty special."
With a season-opening loss to No. 12 Florida State and a road game looming at Arkansas next week, the Rebels cannot afford another slip-up if they are to entertain thoughts of reaching a significant bowl game. Ole Miss is a two-touchdown favorite Saturday, but must deal with a Tigers' offense that piled up 635 yards in a 77-3 victory over Bowling Green last week and has scored 155 points in three games this season.
Memphis junior quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed six touchdown passes and rushed for another last week while playing only the first half, drawing the praise of Freeze.
"He has played really well," Freeze said. "I don't know that it would be fair for me to try to asses it to (Paxton) Lynch until I see him live, but on film he is making every throw, he uses his feet, and seemed like a leader and competitive dude so I know they are pleased with him to this point for sure."
The Rebels have an explosive offense of their own, averaging 40 points behind the leadership of quarterback Chad Kelly. The senior completes 65.4 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, going 18 for 24 with two TDs against Georgia.
Kelly's favorite target is senior tight end Evan Engram, who boasts team highs with 26 catches for 397 yards and three touchdowns. Engram's success also creates opportunities for outside threats such as junior wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow (14-211-2).
"Every week we are moving him around a good bit," Freeze said of Engram. "The second part to that is they have other things to worry about than just Evan (Engram). We have some pretty good receivers. If you want to double him inside then there are some people outside that are in one-on-one situations."
Defensively, Ole Miss must pressure Ferguson and linebacker DeMarquis Gates appears up to the task. The junior recorded a pair of sacks among his team-high 30 tackles (12 solo) this season, with a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries also to his credit.
Memphis junior wide receiver Anthony Miller (17 catches, 273 yards, two touchdowns) will get to work against an inexperienced secondary that is learning on the job and part of the reason the Rebels allow 30 points per game.
Ferguson was named American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week after matching the school record by accounting for seven touchdowns set in 2014 and 2015 by Lynch, who was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos.
"I would say it was a good taste (but) there's still a lot of things we can do better, to say the least," said Ferguson, a junior-college transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. "We actually put up a lot of points (Saturday), but there's still things we can get better on, which is kind of scary."
Memphis is led defensively by junior linebacker Genard Avery, who owns a team-high four tackles for loss and an interception.
Tigers senior outside linebacker/defensive end DeMarco Montgomery (sack, two QB hurries) will miss the first half after he was ejected for targeting last week.