September 08, 2015

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - It's hard to get too excited about any statistics from No. 17 Mississippi's lopsided victory over an obviously inferior opponent last week.

But one number did catch the attention of coach Hugh Freeze: The Rebels averaged nearly 10 yards per rushing attempt and had five players run for at least 40 yards in the 76-3 victory over UT Martin.

That's important because Ole Miss was among the worst teams in the SEC last season running the football. With experienced offensive linemen and running backs returning, the Rebels had hoped for vast improvement in that area.

The progress after one game was promising.

But the opponents will become tougher in a hurry, starting with a home game against Fresno State on Saturday.

''Like I've said throughout the summer, I've been cautiously optimistic that we've done some things that will help us improve,'' Freeze said. ''I just hope we have a healthy offensive line. We're yet to get totally there.''

Health is one issue for the offensive line - potential starting guard Rod Taylor missed last Saturday's game with a shoulder injury but could return this week.

NCAA eligibility is another.

Starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil was held out of the UT Martin game for what the school called ''precautionary'' reasons while the program looks into potential NCAA violations. Freeze didn't know on Monday if Tunsil will play against Fresno State and said that any decisions regarding his status would be made by the administration.

The school said during the summer that it was working with the NCAA after Tunsil's stepfather made allegations that the offensive lineman had improper contact with agents and received illegal benefits.

''That can be quite frustrating and make you anxious at times, but I am confident that our people and whatever process is going on that they're on top of it,'' Freeze said.

Ole Miss shifted the offensive line because of Tunsil's absence, moving Fahn Cooper to left tackle and inserting Sean Rawlings at right tackle. It worked just fine against the overmatched Skyhawks.

The Rebels gained 338 yards on the ground. Eugene Brazley led the way with 88 yards and one touchdown on six carries while starter Jaylen Walton ran for two touchdowns - including a 60-yarder on his first carry of the game.

Jordan Wilkins added 41 yards on six carries.

''We've got to keep improving,'' Wilkins said. ''But it was good to get out there and see five different running backs run the ball well and even the second string offensive line was opening up holes.''

An improved running game would almost certainly take some pressure off new starting quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior transfer had a good first game, completing nine of 15 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

''Anytime you can run the ball at will, it gives you a lot of options to open up the playbook and keep the defense on their heels,'' Kelly said. ''That's when you can throw it around a little bit.''

Fresno State has a potent run game of its own behind Marteze Waller, the Mountain West's third-leading rusher last year with 1,368 yards. Waller opened this season running for 154 in a 34-13 win over Abilene Christian.

The Bulldogs also were impressive against the run, allowing 1.2 yards per carry - 10th-best in the FBS - though that came against an FCS opponent.

"Defensively I was really impressed with how physical our defense played," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "We limited them. We basically took the run away from them."

Both teams are expected to play multiple quarterbacks. Ole Miss used three in the opener, though Kelly will start again over DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Fresno State sophomore Zack Greenlee threw three TD passes last week but completed just 14 of 32 attempts, Chason Virgil came off the bench to connect on 8 of 13 and both threw an interception.

Ole Miss swept a home-and-home series in 2010 and 2011 in the only meetings between these programs, but neither was a blowout. In fact, the last one came in Oxford and Fresno State held the lead in the fourth quarter before losing 38-28.

The Bulldogs have lost 19 straight to ranked opponents since beating Virginia in a 2004 bowl game, but Freeze - a former San Jose State assistant - isn't letting the Rebels look ahead to next week's matchup with No. 2 Alabama.

"From my short time in San Jose, one thing was evident to me from the kids at Fresno that play for coach DeRuyter: they love challenges," Freeze said. "They love playing in environments against schools people would consider the bigger schools.

"... It will be a better test for us this Saturday to judge exactly where we are. I am glad we have them at home."

Mississippi defensive lineman Issac Gross will miss the rest of the season because of a neck injury. Gross made three tackles last week and played in 12 games last season, tying for third on the team with eight tackles for a loss.

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