With Jonathan Crompton now leading the SEC in touchdown passes with 21, Crompton quickly became a target for Ole Miss’s defense in Saturday’s matchup between the Vols and Rebels. But for Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, the priority is getting after the Vols’ running game and stopping it quickly.
“We do not want to give up the explosive plays,” Nutt said. “We’ve got to stop the run. They’ve keying in so well right now. We’ve got an outstanding opponent in Tennessee, both offensively and defensively.”
The Rebels will host the Volunteers on Saturday in Oxford for the first time since Nutt took over the head-coaching job from current UT defensive line coach Ed Orgeron before the 2008 season.
In their fifth SEC matchup of the year, the Rebels will seek to stop a Tennessee running game that has produced an average of 168 yards on the ground per game and tallied 14 touchdowns on the season.
So far, the Ole Miss defense has had success on defense, ranking third in the league in red zone defense, first in preventing third-down conversions, second in sacks, third in first-down prevention and third in pass defense.
The Rebels will have to make up for the absence of defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who will be out for the game and for the season with a fractured left wrist. Hardy led the team with five sacks for 31 yards along with two pass breakups and four quarterback hurries.
So far, the Rebels have won only two SEC contests and have fallen from No. 4 nationally in week three to currently unranked.
In its three losses, Ole Miss has scored an average of 11 points per game despite averaging 39.3 points on the season.
UT head coach Lane Kiffin said the Rebels’ speed will cause problems for the Vols.
“They are a very fast team, very physical up front on defense especially and obviously a great running back that lines up everywhere and a quarterback that can get really hot and throw the ball as well as anybody,” Kiffin said. “So it’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”
Kiffin referred to senior Dexter McCluster, who is listed as a wide receiver but still averages 52.6 yards per game on the ground for Ole Miss.
McCluster is also third on the team in scoring, recording four touchdowns on the year.
“(McCluster) is a really good playmaker,” linebacker Herman Lathers said. “He’s fast, and we’ve just got to prepare for him.”
Taking snaps for the Rebels is junior quarterback Jevan Snead, who held a spot on the Lindy’s Heisman Watch List and garnered second-team All-SEC honors in the preseason. Nine games into the season, Snead has thrown 13 interceptions, which is the most in the SEC, along with 17 touchdown passes.
Nutt said that for this game, it’s not just about Snead stepping up but the whole team.
“The biggest improvement I want to see is focus from the entire team — paying attention to details and not going through the motions for one step,” he said at his Tuesday media day. “I have seen our guys do that before where they are in a frenzy and play at a very high level.”