I probably haven't done a good enough job of plugging the stuff the guys at SB Nation's Ole Miss site, Red Cup Rebellion, have been doing. If you've not yet been over there, make it a point to head over as they've been covering the bowl quite a bit.
Pitt fans, as you can probably imagine, aren't real enthusiastic about a third straight Compass Bowl. But I'm guessing the sentiment is a little different for Ole Miss fans after a couple of losing seasons, right?
Red Cup Rebellion: Ole Miss fans are very excited about this game. After last year's 2-10 season and the initial general skepticism of Ole Miss fans with the Hugh Freeze hire, few if any of us expected much more than three, maybe four wins this year. But simply exceeding expectations is not all we are excited about. Hugh Freeze seems to be a pretty good football coach and an absolutely phenomenal recruiter. He is also personable, generally likable, and works well with the media (things which are, oddly enough, important to Ole Miss fans). While we only went 6-6 this year, we weren't flat out embarrassed by the team like we were in 2011. I guess what it comes down to is that Ole Miss fans are proud of the football team again, and with Birmingham being a short drive away from most of the Ole Miss fan base, it makes sense that we'd travel well to the Compass Bowl.
Tell us a little about quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti. It seems both have the ability to make plays with their legs.
Hugh Freeze loves quarterbacks who can move the ball on the ground, as it fits in nicely with the read-option scheme he likes to run. Wallace isn't terribly fast, but he has had some pretty impressive runs this season, including a 58 yard touchdown scamper against LSU. He is actually the second leading rusher on the team with 363 yards and 8 scores. Brunetti is, however, the much more dangerous running threat. He's more athletic and agile than Wallace, and has a big enough body to make him tougher to bring down. Brunetti, however, is only used situationally at this point. There was some debate early in the season as to who would start, but it's clear that this is Wallace's offense. He has the advantage of having learned under Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State as a freshman (after which he transferred to a junior college, won the junior college national championship, then transferred to Ole Miss) so his knowledge of the playbook, along with his ability to move in and out of the pocket and his chemistry with the receivers, keep him atop the depth chart.
Wallace has thrown 15 picks this year and we're hoping the Pitt defense can capitalize a bit on that. Have those been the result of Wallace making poor throws or have any of those been on the receivers?
As with any quarterback, it's a little bit of both. I can think of several interceptions which were the fault of a receiver or poor pass protection, but there were also several which were just foolish decisions. Wallace has tried to be a superhero at times (a "gunslinger" if you prefer such terminology), opting to heave the ball deep towards a receiver, only to have that throw fall short and be picked off. It's important to note that Wallace has been nursing a bum throwing shoulder for much of the season and playing through the pain. In several games he has been picked off after throwing weak, wobbly passes that one could argue he wouldn't have thrown with a healthy shoulder.
Give us a guy on offense and defense that could be a bit of an under-the-radar type of player to watch.
A guy who does not get enough credit on offense is wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan. While he has no receiving touchdowns on the year, he does have 37 receptions for 454 yards. His real value to this offense is that reliable set of hands to go to in third down situations. I can think of several big time conversions he has had which have kept our offense rolling late in games.
On defense, I don't think enough credit is given to nose tackle Gilbert Peña. He is a 6'3" 320 pound guy whose sole job is to gobble up blockers and plug up the middle of the line. He's not an every down guy at all, but he has made some big stops when he has been called upon, earning 5.5 TFLs and 2.0 sacks on the year. He is not the star of the defense, but he is one of the few veteran senior leaders on that side of the ball and has become a bit of a fan favorite up front.
In looking at Ole Miss' record from afar, the thing that jumps out are the fourth-quarter leads they've lost. Part of that is due to the level of competition, obviously, but can you explain a little bit about what's happened there?
So much of those squandered fourth quarter leads have had to do with inexperience. We are starting so many freshmen and sophomores this season, especially on defense, that their youth has caught up to them several times. Against Texas A&M for example, Johnny Manziel basically took the game over late, and our defense couldn't keep up with him. Against LSU, we surrendered a punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, relinquishing our lead for good. Against Vanderbilt, the defense gave up a long Jordan Rodgers touchdown throw with less than a minute left to play. Basically, we had the game plan and effort to establish leads, but not the experience or depth needed to hang on to them late in the game.
What's your pick for the game?
I think Pitt's defense is going to be very tough for our offense to work against. I also think bowl games are themselves so difficult to predict because of all of the time off from football the players for both teams have had. I'm optimistic enough to, for the purposes of this exchange, predict a Rebel win, but I don't necessarily expect it.
I'll say the Rebs win by a touchdown, 31 to 24.