December 24, 2009

An Early Look: Ole Miss

The 2010 Cotton Bowl will be a nice cap to a solid season for Oklahoma State.

But to make the year a major success, a bowl win will be needed. Last year, the Cowboys were unable to reach the 10-win plateau with its loss to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. This year, the Pokes stand once again at 9-3 heading into its bowl game. If OSU defeats Ole Miss in the game, it will be the first 10-win season since 1988 - a span of 21 seasons.

And standing in the way of that double-digit season are those Hotty Toddy Rebels, who bested OSU back in the 2004 installment of the Cotton Bowl.

So what are some early thoughts on Ole Miss, who went 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the SEC?

"Ole Miss is a very good football team," said head coach Mike Gundy. "They're a very blitzing, attacking style of defense. They want to pressure the quarterback and do a lot of run blitzes. They play man coverage. They've got interior guys that have made a lot of plays this year. I think they have 30-something tackles for loss in the interior, so they've got a number of guys that can make some plays. They play a lot of man blitz from the secondary."

"Anytime you play an SEC team, their front four is going to be big," said tailback Keith Toston. "They are big guys that can make plays. Their skill guys in the secondary are big and fast and they can tackle. We're going to have to buckle down and try to make plays and come out with a win."

Offensive lineman Andrew Lewis says the Ole Miss defense is just as good as the last defense they played - Oklahoma.

"They have great defensive linemen and great speed at the linebacker position, so they're definitely going to be a challenge," he said. "If you watch film, you can always see their defensive linemen making plays and doing special things for them."

Overall, the Rebels rank 24th in the NCAA in total defense, allowing 319 yards per game. Their scoring defense is even better, averaging about 18.5 points per game, good for 17th nationally. On the other side of the ball, Ole Miss ranks 42nd in total offense (405 ypg) and 35th in scoring offense (30.25 ppg).

"Offensively, I don't think there's any secret what they want to do," Gundy said. "They want to run the football. They're going to run downhill. They're going to run power. They're going to run counter. They're going to run inside and try to get you to play the run, play the run; and then throw the ball over the top. That's what they've done all year."

The OSU defense realizes what it is going up against in this game: a unit that can find ways to beat you on the ground or through the air, but would rather just, as Bill Young said, "try to run it down your throat.

"You better bow up and be strong against the run and sound in all of those issues," he said.

The main threat on the ground for the Rebels is Dexter McCluster, who rushed for 985 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. He was hot as the season reached its end, as he racked up 512 yards and four scores in the last three games of the season.

"He's a very talented guy," Young said. "There was an article in the paper the other day if would have been the tailback all year, he might have been a Heisman candidate. He's got excellent speed and he has that ability to evade the tackle. He can jump sideways as fast as he can move forward. He's a lot stronger running the football than you would think with his size."

While guarding against McCluster's ability will be key for OSU to win the game, the Cowboys cannot overlook their quarterback. OSU fans might remember Jevan Snead from his Texas days. After it became apparent Colt McCoy was going to be the man for the Longhorns, Snead transferred to Oxford and sat out the 2007 campaign. Since then, all he has done is become the second quarterback in Ole Miss history to throw for 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons, joining Eli Manning, who accomplished the feat three straight years. In 2009, Snead passed for 2,464 yards (54.3 percent completion percentage) and 20 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. His biggest game came against Auburn, as he threw for 332 yards and two scores.

But, as the stats above show, he's been wildly inconsistent at times. Aside from the game against Northern Arizona, Snead has matched his TD total with an equal amount of INTs in the same game. Example: against Memphis he had two scores and two picks; at Vanderbilt he had three TDs and three INTs; against Arkansas it was two apiece; at Mississippi State it was three squared. In all, Snead has had six multi-INT games.

So, it's safe to say that while Snead is a good QB, he can be rattled in a big way.

"He's a big, physical guy," Young said. "He runs a little better than you would anticipate for a guy his size. They will run some option, not a lot. He'll take the ball and take it up and run with it. He does the same thing from a scrambling standpoint. We were watching film yesterday and they were third-down and 15 and he ran for first downs in both situations."

"It's going to be a great challenge," said Andre Sexton of the Ole Miss backfield. "The SEC is a very physical conference. We're going to have to bring our 'A' game, especially on defense. Dexter McCluster is a very talented running back. He's small and he's shifty and he has a lot of speed. Jevan Snead is one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He makes great decisions. They don't throw the ball much; they try to pound it down your throat. But, when he does the throw the ball, they're going to make you pay for it."

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