Alabama running back Kenyan Drake, left, is tackled by Mississippi defensive back Kailo Moore, right, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill
September 21, 2015

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Mississippi's defense was far from perfect in Saturday's victory over Alabama, with blown assignments and fatigue leading to several big plays for the Crimson Tide.

The Rebels were saved by one thing: A knack for creating turnovers.

No. 3 Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has forced 10 turnovers this season - including five crucial ones against Alabama. Out of those 10 turnovers, seven are interceptions, including three by safety Trae Elston.

''We're going to fly to the ball, all 11, and that's what creates turnovers,'' Elston said. ''Our defensive line's improved and that makes the quarterback hurry up and throw.''

Ole Miss' ability to force the other team into mistakes isn't a recent phenomenon. The Rebels forced 32 turnovers last season, which ranked in the top 10 nationally.

Freeze has developed a coaching reputation as an innovative offensive mind, and he spends much of his time on that side of the ball. But he readily acknowledges his team's defensive improvement - specifically the ability to force turnovers - has been vital in pushing the Rebels into the nation's elite.

Ole Miss hosts Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1) on Saturday.

''Defense wins big games for you,'' Freeze said. ''You have to get some stops.''

Ole Miss coaches and players universally praise the team's defensive line as the catalyst behind the big plays. The anchor is the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Robert Nkemdiche, who had six tackles, including 2 1/2 for a loss, against the Crimson Tide.

''It was his best game since he's been here,'' Freeze said. ''Very few people could have played the amount of snaps that he did with the production he had. He's just kind of a freak of an athlete. He finished plays when he had the opportunity and he was disruptive.''

With the defensive line pressuring the quarterback, it's allowed the secondary to feast on interceptions. Junior Tony Bridges pulled down a crucial one in the fourth quarter when Alabama was trying to drive for a potentially game-winning touchdown.

Freeze also said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack does a good job of staying aggressive.

''I think we present a lot of different looks for the quarterbacks,'' Freeze said. ''That might be bad in some instances because we're out of position some, but it does create some turnovers. Our guys do a good job of disguising their stuff and there's a lot of different looks a quarterback has to process.''

The only issue facing the Rebels on defense is depth. Freeze said starting safety Tony Conner is expected to miss the next four weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered against Alabama.

Even before Conner's injury, the Rebels were asking a lot of their starters. Elston said he played nearly 100 plays against Alabama.

''We've just got to get that depth chart,'' Elston said. ''Our (backups) have to step it up because playing so many plays gets you really tired and I think that showed.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.

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