OXFORD, Miss. — So much for Mississippi’s southern hospitality. Then again, sharks aren’t that hospitable. And the ones in Oxford don’t need a drop of water to survive — or eat.
After Ole Miss beat Tennessee 34-3 on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the Rebels were still ranked No. 3 in the country. The defense that so affectionately refers to itself as Landsharks, there’s a very good argument that it is the No. 1 unit in the country.
Ole Miss lived — err, swam — in the Tennessee backfield. When Tennessee got the ball with 7:53 left in the game, they trailed 24-3. The bigger, or smaller, number was the Vols’ rushing line. Tennessee had 23 carries for minus-7 yards at the time. That’s minus-0.3 yards per carry. They finished with a significant upgrade — 28 rushes, zero yards, 0. Sixty-one gained. Sixty-one lost. Zero net. That’s 0.0 yards per rush.
"Our defense is playing so well right now," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "I think we held them to maybe, zero rushing yards, or something like that."
Freeze made the comment while looking down at the stat sheet on the table, maybe making sure that was correct. Because it sounds absurd to hold an SEC team to no yards rushing.
Granted, Tennessee averages less than 110 yards per game on the ground, but that’s still nearly 110 below average.
"We’ve got the best D-line in the country," senior defensive back Senquez Golson said. "That makes our defense a lot better when you’ve got guys up front, starters, people coming in behind them that could be starters, playing the way they’re playing."
It wasn’t just the rush. Ole Miss, 7-0 for only the second time in program history and for the first time since it went 10-0 and earned a share of the 1962 national title, gave up 191 total yards. The Rebels picked off three passes, two by Golson, whose total now stands at seven for the season, atop the SEC and second in the country. They also forced a fumble.
So is it the best defense in the country?
"I guess we’ll have to see at the end of the year. We’ve got it rolling right now," Golson said. "So, 7-0, which means nothing if we don’t keep it rolling."
It took the Rebels a quarter-and-a-half to score, but according to Golson, Vince Sanders’ 39-yard touchdown from Bo Wallace for a 7-3 lead should be enough.
"If our offense scores three points, we should win," Golson said.
Freeze said he’d never looked at it as only needing a set amount of points, but did say you could watch the play-calling and see the offense’s confidence in the defense.
"If you look at stats, which everyone does, you’ve got to figure if we can score 17 to mid 20s, we’ve got a chance to win a lot of games the way they’re playing," Freeze said.
Golson said he could tell in fall camp the unit had this type of potential, noting chemistry among the upperclassmen and heralded recruiting classes that filled the gaps.
Entering the game, Ole Miss was allowing 11.8 points per game, first in the daunting Southeastern Conference, second nationally. They were allowing 307.2 yards per game, good for third in the SEC and 13th nationally.
Its 15 interceptions leads the nation. The three returned for touchdowns is tied for first.
Pass defense and run defense were fourth and third in the SEC, both 21st in the country. The 98.0 pass defense efficiency was first in the conference and eighth nationally. Tackles for loss (6.8 per), opponent third-down percentage (31.5), turnover margin (+6), turnovers gained (16, good for eighth nationally) and red zone defense (78.6) were all inside the SEC’s top five when Saturday began.
Six players entered the night in the conference’s top five in individual categories. Defensive ends Marquis Haynes and Channing Ward were tied for first with two forced fumbles, defensive backs Golson and Mike Hilton were fourth and fifth in passes defended per game and Haynes was tied for fifth with four sacks.
The three points Ole Miss allowed against the Vols is more impressive given that three Tennessee drives in the first half started within 10 yards of midfield because of the slow offensive start. Punter Will Gleeson aided the effort with nine punts, a 48.2-yard average, four times inside the 20 and four times for more than 50 yards.
"I asked (DB) Tony Conner, ‘Are you mad you gave up three points?’" quarterback Bo Wallace said. "He said, ‘Absolutely,’ and that’s the defense’s mindset."
And that’s not evening mentioning sophomore man-child defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who had one of Ole Miss’ seven sacks Saturday.
When Ole Miss allowed Texas A&M to score a touchdown on the final play last week in College Station, Golson said the conversation in the locker room wasn’t about the 35-20 rout.
"We understood what we need to do is finish," Golson said. "After they scored the last touchdown, we got in the locker room, that’s what we talked about. We gave up too many points and we didn’t finish and that’s not us."
Ole Miss isn’t the No. 1 team in the country. Archrival Mississippi State is. And until this year, No. 3 would have been pleasing. But no blood is enough for sharks and this land version says they’re still plenty hungry.