September 22, 2015

(AP) - Mississippi's defense was far from perfect in last 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 Mississippi's opportunistic defense looks to take advantage of a Vanderbilt team still trying to get its offense in gear Saturday night.

Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC) has forced 10 turnovers this season - including five crucial ones in the 43-37 win over 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 in the FBS.

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.

''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 Rebels have been just as impressive on offense, averaging an FBS-best 64.0 points and ranking tied for ninth in yards at 567.3 per game.

Chad Kelly is second among FBS quarterbacks in passer rating (205.7), throwing for 898 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception.

Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1) has been nowhere near as efficient with the ball.

The Commodores have yet to score a point in the first quarter and only nine points in the second quarter combined. They are coming off a 47-7 rout of Austin Peay of the FCS, and coach Derek Mason called that a confidence builder.

''We needed to have some success, we had some success,'' Mason said. ''Now what we get a chance to do is go on the road and play against one of the best teams in the country in a place where there's probably going to be tough for us to have instant success.''

The Rebels, who won 41-3 at Vanderbilt last season, have won 10 straight home games against unranked opponents since a 27-26 loss to the Commodores in 2012.

Vanderbilt will have to find a way to score points, and the earlier the better. Mason noted Ole Miss has outscored opponents 58-0 in the first quarter of the Rebels' first three games.

Senior center Spencer Pulley said the Commodores know the little things they can do to help themselves start a bit faster.

''It is really about the players going out there with the right mentality and just executing the offense from the first play,'' Pulley said.

Johnny McCrary, who was intercepted five times in losses to Western Kentucky and Georgia, had his best game last week. He threw for 368 yards and his 84.8 completion percentage set a single-game school record.

The Commodores will be without sophomore tight end DeAndre Woods for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Woods ranks fourth on the roster with seven catches for 129 yards. Mason said tight end Steven Scheu will be back, and the senior will have to pick up the slack with Nathan Marcus and Sean Dowling.

Freeze said he can see that Vanderbilt's offense is different under new coordinator Andy Ludwig, whom Mason hired after a stint at Wisconsin.

''With all the shifts and motions, you can be a bit gap unsound,'' Freeze said. ''So they present an issue. It is a little different. Some similarities, but some differences also. Passing game is definitely different.''

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