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August 29, 2008

Memphis - the key match-up

Football is like a war, where minor battles shape the winner of campaigns and strategy shapes tactical moves.

In football, it's called match-ups - who has the strong unit up front, who has the best playmakers, and who has the best field general (quarterback) are examples.

When it comes to Ole Miss and Memphis, there is an overall strategic game plan, but when it comes to an area most likely to shape the winning team, the key match-up is clearly Memphis' outstanding wide receiver corps going against what coaches have frequently described as a chink in the Rebels' armor - the team's cornerbacks.

Not much has changed since the two teams met on the first day of September, last year - at least not the faces.

In that game, Ole Miss took a 20-0 lead into halftime, only to hang on for a 23-21 win. Memphis threw the football 61 times for 343 yards, and had it not been for four interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown, the Rebels would have surely lost the game. Overall, Memphis outgained Ole Miss 467 yards to 275 and for those in attendance, a bevy of Tiger wide receivers appeared to be as open as a herd of wild Mustangs on a prairie more so than playing on a football field while being covered by defenders.

Memphis' starting wide receivers - Carlos Singleton, Duke Calhoun and Maurice Jones, who range from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8, accounted for 23 of Memphis' 41 receptions on the day, with Calhoun hauling in 10 passes for 87 yards. Translated, that simply means that Memphis had field day with Rebel cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn and Dustin Mouzon and other defenders in the secondary. With both cornerbacks being in the 5-foot-10 range, they have a serious height disadvantage, but it wasn't leaping for jump balls that accounted for the yards as much as it was that receivers ran open for much of the day.

With Ole Miss starting the same cornerbacks, it's a given that Memphis head coach Tommy West will look to exploit the same area on Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when the two teams kick off their opening game at 6 p.m.

However, one thing that has changed with West and his team is that the quarterback who hit on 41 of 60 passes (Martin Hankins) is gone. He'll be replaced by junior college transfer Arkelon Hall, who West seems to expect to have some first game jitters.

"If they have some success early, our wideouts can take some of the pressure off of him. Arkelon is a strong armed guy who won't have to make a lot of plays for us," West said. "If he can get the ball in the right places, our receivers will make plays for him. The big thing will be if we can run the ball some to take even more pressure off of Arkelon and the receivers. That would be the perfect scenario for us."

That's another thing that's changed for Memphis - a pair of running backs (Joseph Doss and T.J. Pitts) who combined for almost 100 rushing yards against Ole Miss last year are gone and the Tigers will be relying on a junior college transfer and transfer from Miami to shoulder the load.

Between having a new quarterback and two new running backs, it does shift some of the pressure off the secondary where they may be able to get some additional help from safeties and linebackers, but Rebel head coach Houston Nutt knows it'll be a challenge for his defense.

"It's the toughest match-up there is right there, but you have to be great, fundamentally-sound technicians," Nutt said. "Everybody's got to do their part. You know they're very good receivers. That's their strength and we have to do a great job of defending those guys. We may mix some things up. We'll try to keep them off-balance."

When it comes to defending Memphis receivers, several other factors could also favor Ole Miss.

The backups aren't the same, the coaches aren't the same, and the supporting cast - particularly on the defensive line at at linebackers, which can influence the passing game - has more experience and are improved talent-wise.

Former wide receiver Marshay Green and running back Jeremy McGee, while lacking in experience, bring athleticism to the position, as does true freshman Julian Whitehead, who has emerged as a candidate to see action in nickel packages. The defensive line, while hurt by injuries, still figures to put pressure on Hall, who will play behind a near depleted line. On the coaching front, there will be two pair of eyes on the secondary where Chris Vaughn tutors cornerbacks and veteran defensive coordinator Kim Dameron coaches safeties - they replace Chris Rippon, who coached the secondary at Ole Miss last year.

While the Memphis receiver and Ole Miss secondary match-up, on the surface, appears to be key and favor Memphis, considering several other factors, it might best be regarded as a toss up. But, still it is worthy of watching and surely a match-up that could influence the outcome of the game.




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