› Ole Miss finishing strong under interim coach Luke,
The 2017 Ole Miss Rebels will be remembered for being lousy at raising the white flag.
Picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference Western Division and playing this football season under an interim coach and a self-imposed bowl ban, the Rebels are a feisty 5-5 entering Saturday’s game against visiting Texas A&M. Ole Miss already has matched its win total from last season, when the injury-ravaged Rebels dropped five of their last seven games under former coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze was fired in July after it was revealed he had made calls to escort services, leaving offensive line coach and former Ole Miss player Matt Luke to head his alma mater’s team on an interim basis. The Rebels suffered a blow late last month when quarterback Shea Patterson was lost for the season with a knee injury, but junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu has continued to provide the needed offensive punch.
“I’ve been on a lot of really good teams — SEC East championship teams, Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Outback Bowl teams that were very, very successful — but I don’t know if I’ve had a more rewarding year than this year,” said Luke, who was Tennessee’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator in 2006-07. “It’s been awesome to watch our team grow together and go from being kind of a separated team at the very, very bottom to watch them come together and grow up and fight for each other. It’s been very, very rewarding.
“I think there has always been this, ‘Well, this team doesn’t have anything to play for. They’re going to shut it down.’ To not do that and to keep showing up and keep playing says volumes about our players and staff.”
Ole Miss has been given plenty of chances to fold during this supposed throwaway year, most notably after a 66-3 shellacking at Alabama on Sept. 30 and a 35-3 halftime deficit the following week at Auburn. The Rebels scrapped back somewhat to lose by a more respectable 44-23 at Auburn, and they’ve had a chance to win every game since except the 40-24 loss to LSU on Oct. 21, when Patterson went down.
The Rebels lost a 38-37 decision to Arkansas on Oct. 28, a game they led 31-7 at one point, but they bounced back the next week to stun Kentucky in Lexington 37-34. The win over the Wildcats was followed by last Saturday’s 50-22 drubbing of Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We only have 12 seniors,” Luke said. “We have a lot of young, talented players who are growing up right in front of our eyes, and it’s been fun these last few weeks to see them get some return on their investment.”
Luke already has impressed enough to be considered for the job permanently by athletic director Ross Bjork, who hired a search firm in August and posted the job listing in early October. Topping Texas A&M this week and pulling an Egg Bowl upset of Mississippi State in Starkville on Thanksgiving night would certainly give what has been a long-shot candidacy even more steam, but Luke is not wanting to entertain those thoughts in this stretch run.
“I just don’t think that you can go there,” he said. “The focus has to be on the kids. I think everybody knows that this is a dream job for me and that I would love to have it, but that is a distraction, and I think you have to put all the focus on the kids.
“With everything these kids have been through, you want to give them the opportunity to finish the season with something they’ll be really proud of.”
For Ole Miss to be competitive this season, the Rebels were going to have to rely on their offense and hope for the best on defense. That has indeed been the case, as they average 480.2 yards per game but allow 462.2.
Sophomore A.J. Brown has been the shining star of a deep receiver crop, already amassing 1,015 yards on 62 catches and being the SEC’s lone pick among the Biletnikoff Award semifinalists. Senior running back Jordan Wilkins has rushed for 754 yards and 6.2 yards per carry, and then there is Ta’amu, a 6-foot-2, 212-pound Hawaiian who has completed 86 of 117 passes (73.5 percent) for 1,246 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I do feel confident now,” Ta’amu told reporters after last Saturday’s win. “I’m just reading the defense a lot quicker and knowing where to throw the ball.”
Ole Miss will honor its seniors Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It’s a crop that experienced a brief top-four stay in the College Football Playoff rankings in 2014 and a 10-win season in 2015 that was capped by a 48-20 rout of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
The seniors also have endured a 10-12 mark the past two seasons, which seemingly have been held forever under the cloud of impending NCAA sanctions.
“I want them to know how important they are to the program, but we’ve still got to go play football,” Luke said. “We’re going to focus more on enjoying these last few days together and enjoy the time we have guaranteed. We’ve been on teams with better records, but they will always remember this season.
“The adversity and all the things they’ve battled through — they’ll be proud of this season for the rest of their lives.”
Ole Miss sophomore A.J. Brown has 1,015 receiving yards through 10 games and is the lone SEC semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.