Struggling Ole Miss defense preparing for No. 10 Georgia

Published 6:44 pm Friday, September 29, 2006

It’s pretty easy for Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron to predict how No. 10 Georgia will attack his retreating Rebels.

Combine two freshmen vying to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs, mix in their three top-notch running backs and add an injury-riddled Rebels defensive line and the situation is clear.

“I think teams are seeing how thin we are on the defensive line and how we’re not playing the run,” Orgeron said. “They’re probably going to come after us with the run.”

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The Ole Miss defense bottomed out last Saturday when the usually lowly regarded Wake Forest rushed on 53 of 58 plays for 240 yards in an easy 27-3 victory in Oxford that was decided by halftime.

The Rebels’ defense carried Ole Miss during Orgeron’s first season. But a third of the way through 2006, the defense has been the largest disappointment in a difficult September.

Ole Miss (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) is 10th or worse in nine of 10 defensive categories compiled by the SEC. They are last in five categories.

The team is giving up a league-worst 29.2 points per game, has forced just four turnovers and no interceptions, and has only five sacks.

But statistics don’t tell the entire story as the Rebels prepare to host the Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday in a game that will be televised on ESPN2. Orgeron questioned his team’s “competitive nature” following the Wake Forest loss — the Rebels’ third straight. And he has begun to tie the offense’s struggles to a defense that can’t slow down opponents.

All-American linebacker Patrick Willis, who leads the SEC with 11.5 tackles per game, said there is meat to his coach’s opinion.

“I think sometimes there are times where you ask yourself, ’Are we really competing on this play here,’ or, ’Is that person or this person really competing,’ or, ’Am I really competing on this play,”’ Willis said. “That’s one thing that you don’t want to have a problem with on your team.”

Injuries along a depleted defensive line are the most likely culprit. The Rebels lost four senior starters from their defensive line and have been without two players expected to make an impact — Peria Jerry and Jeremy Garrett.

Ole Miss feels their loss not only on game day, but in practice. Orgeron said part of the team’s malaise against Wake Forest might have had its origin in low-contact practices designed to keep everyone healthy.

“The only thing we don’t have is we don’t have a lot of choices in personnel,” Orgeron said. “We barely have a second-team line. That’s not an excuse, that’s just the way we are. We have to play with the guys we have and hopefully make them better.”

Two of those players pushed into action are Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman, a pair of freshman who now start at defensive end. Hardy, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder who played for a small Christian school outside Memphis a year ago, has forced fumbles in consecutive contests and had nine tackles in the last two games.

That’s a vast improvement over the two tackles he turned in during the Rebels’ first two games. “At first it was way too fast, to be honest, for me to be playing out there because I was thinking too much,” Hardy said. “It’s slowed down a lot so far.”

Willis could have left all this behind and declared for the NFL draft in April. But he chose to come back and play his senior season, a decision he said he won’t regret no matter how hard Ole Miss struggles. “I’m totally glad I came back,” Willis said. “I’m glad I came back because I feel like me coming back for my senior year not only helps me as an individual, but helps our team. It gives those guys some leadership and somebody to look to and say, ’If this guy came back, then it must be something good here. He came back for a reason.”’