› Ole Miss fin­ish­ing strong un­der in­terim coach Luke,

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - Con­tact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. BY DAVID PASCHALL STAFF WRITER

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.”

PETRE THOMAS/OLE MISS PHOTO

Ole Miss sopho­more A.J. Brown has 1,015 re­ceiv­ing yards through 10 games and is the lone SEC semi­fi­nal­ist for the Bilet­nikoff Award.

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