By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – By any measure, the accomplishments of the Ole Miss football program under the direction of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze have been a great success. The Rebels are looking to continue that prosperity when they take on Pittsburgh in Saturday’s BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The Rebels are 6-6 on the year after winning just a total of six games combined the past two seasons. Ole Miss closed its 2012 regular season with a win over arch rival and then-No. 24 Mississippi State on Nov. 24.
Freeze said at Friday’s pre-bowl press conference at Legion Field that his team has done a good job of staying even keel throughout the season and that’s a mindset that his players will take into Saturday’s game.
“As a coach, you live the mountaintops and the valleys each week,” Freeze said. “However our team performs, my emotions usually show that. We just tried to stay even throughout it. The highs, like winning the Egg Bowl, to give these guys 60 more minutes to play, we’ve had time with all that comes with winning that game and with our state. We’ve enjoyed the momentum that we’ve had there.”
While Freeze is expecting the momentum from his team’s big rivalry win to carry over into the BBVA Compass Bowl, he isn’t placing too much importance on the outcome of Saturday’s game as it relates to the future of his program.
“I’ll never make too much or too little of a win or a loss,” Freeze said. “I think when we’re in the building stage of a program like we are, that could be dangerous. There’s no question that winning tomorrow and finishing the year – to me that I think our team overachieved – and carrying the momentum into the end of the season, into spring ball, into next year, the expectations that will be raised for our team, I think it’s very important.”
The Rebels, who are playing in their first bowl game since the 2010 AT&T Cotton Bowl, rank 13th all-time among Division I teams with 21 bowl victories.
Pitt Not Short On Motivation
Pitt is making its third consecutive appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl and, while one might think that fact might have the Panthers taking this bowl appearance in stride, its players aren’t short on motivation for Saturday’s showdown with Ole Miss.
“Anytime you have another opportunity to play a game, all of our guys are motivated to play,” said Pitt senior defensive back Jarred Holley. “There’s something exciting about playing this game of football and letting it be college football, let alone on this level, is really exciting to do. I think our guys are real motivated and ready to go.”
The Panthers are 6-6 entering Saturday’s game and have won two consecutive contests, defeating Rutgers at home and finishing the regular season with a road win at USF. Pitt lost to SMU 28-6 in last year’s BBVA Compass Bowl
As Pitt senior offensive lineman Ryan Turnley stated, the fact that the Panthers have an opportunity to extend their season and play in a bowl game is motivation enough.
“You never know what is going to be your last football game, so just the opportunity to get 60 more minutes of it, there’s something about it. It just motivates all of us; we don’t need any more motivation than that.”
Rebels Ready To End Break
It’s been more than a month since Ole Miss played its last football game against Mississippi State and the Rebels are ready to end their break from competition.
“You get used to the season, playing a game every Saturday, in and out,” said freshman Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. “Then you get this big break and you just get hungry to get out there and play some more football. We’re in this because we actually love the game, so we’re making sure everybody on the team is hungry and that we play up to our expectations and do what we’re taught, do what Coach Freeze tells us to do every Saturday.”
Freeze, who has watched other top teams struggle in bowl games over the past few weeks, said that from the viewpoint of a coach, the idea of having an extended break from play is a bit disconcerting.
“From a coach’s perspective, it’s probably a little more unsettling than it is for the guys,” Freeze said. “You watch other teams and how they’ve performed, and some would say they haven’t performed up to their ability. It’s almost like we’re starting a new season again, because it has been quite a long time. That’s from the coach’s perspective, but you have to depend on your young men that you prepared to play 12 games this season. If they get the magnitude and the opportunity, then they’re ready to play.”
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace said the Rebels are definitely ready to play, especially having seen the excitement from the Ole Miss fans surrounding the game.
“For me, getting here, you still feel like the game’s so far away,” Wallace said. “Last night when tweets started rolling in from fans who are coming and they tell you they’re on the way, things like that, it sinks in that it’s almost game time. You start getting that anxiety. We’re really excited to come out here and start the game.”
Players Credit Freeze For Turnaround
Freeze has made an immediate change in the culture of Ole Miss football, which has been evident in the team’s play this season. The Rebel players, speaking at Friday’s press conference, gave Freeze much credit for the squad’s improvement.
“He totally changed the culture, I feel like,” Wallace said. “When you completely buy in, that’s when you start winning games. And in the middle of the season, we bought in, and that’s when we started becoming successful.”
According to Nkemdiche, Freeze’s passion for his team and players is apparent and the Ole Miss student-athletes have enjoyed playing for their new coach, who expects their best on a daily basis.
“Coach Freeze came in, we needed something new, we wanted something new, we wanted something different, we wanted to win,” he said. “He came in and did it out of love – he showed love. He’s a player’s coach. He’s always there when you need him. He’s not going to go easy on you. He’s going to get the best out of you. I love playing for him.”
Pitt Preparing For No-Huddle Ole Miss Offense
Ole Miss has had much success this season running a no-huddle offense and it’s something that has been a major focus of Pitt’s preparation.
“With that aspect, you need a whole lot more communication, getting the calls in and everybody getting lined up, so I think that’s one thing that’s positive for them that they’ve got going,” Holley said. “We’re going to have to be able to get lined up fast and get our calls in quick.”
According to Holley, the Panthers are prepared for any offensive tempo that the Rebels throw at them on Saturday.
“That’s one thing they like to do is change it up throughout the game and show different types of tempo,” Holley said. “For our sake on defense, we just have to get lined up and make sure everybody is on the same page and communicating out there so we have the most success for our defense.”