OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi has proven it can build big first-half leads against some of the best college football teams in the country.
The 23rd-ranked Rebels have also shown they can lose those same leads in a hurry.
Ole Miss blew a 22-point lead against Florida State on Sept. 5 and a 21-point lead against Alabama last weekend in two demoralizing losses that have put a serious dent in the program’s lofty preseason aspirations.
Now coach Hugh Freeze is left trying to figure out what’s going wrong.
“We’ve made some mistakes that have given explosive plays and quick scores — whether it’s on special teams, offense or defense — that have resulted in those comebacks,” Freeze said. “We’ve got to obviously coach better and make sure our kids understand better and don’t do their own thing at certain times.”
Ole Miss (1-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 12 Georgia (3-0, 1-0) on Saturday in another difficult game. And if the Rebels don’t figure out how to fix their problems, any shot at competing for a league title will likely be over before the calendar hits October.
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly said the team has to find a way to be more consistent.
“We play a good 30 minutes, but we have to come out and finish,” Kelly said. “Those last 30 minutes are a mentality thing. It starts with practice, and we’ve got to make sure we finish strong.”
Kelly is a good example of the team’s Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies. The 6-foot-2 senior has thrown for 953 yards and 10 touchdowns in three games, but a handful of turnovers have been very costly in both the Florida State and Alabama losses.
Against the Tide, Kelly threw for a career-high 421 yards and three touchdowns, but he also had two crucial mistakes — a fumble and an interception — that quickly turned into 14 points for Alabama.
Kelly is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again against Georgia. The Bulldogs already have two 10-point comebacks this season in wins over North Carolina and Missouri.
“We have to make sure every series ends in a kick — whether it’s an extra point, a field goal or a punt,” Kelly said. “I have to take it upon myself to keep putting it in my head to take care of the ball.”
While Kelly’s mistakes might stand out, there are plenty of other issues.
Ole Miss is really good at throwing the football, but has had trouble moving the ball on the ground. The Rebels rank 13th out of 14 league teams in rushing and haven’t been able to control the clock with long drives.
“The problem has been when conventional wisdom says slow down, eat some clock, we have not been real good to this point,” Freeze said.
There have also been breakdowns on defense and special teams. Alabama’s Eddie Jackson scored a touchdown on an 85-yard punt return that helped the Tide come back from their early deficit on Saturday.
Above all, Freeze said his players have to understand that one blown assignment or mistake can turn the momentum of the game and give the advantage back to the opponent.
“It’s a combination of coaching, assignment and technique. Just got to keep improving,” Freeze said. “We’ve played a lot of young kids that have to grow up and understand the value of each play in the course of a game.”