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Rebels looking for elusive answers on defensive side

By By Will Bardwell / staff writer
Sept. 12, 2003
Just as it has been in recent years, the questions surrounding the Ole Miss Rebels have concerned their defense. Just as it has been in recent years, the answers are still elusive.
"We're not where we need to be or where we think we can be," said Rebels head coach David Cutcliffe. "We haven't been bad. I just think we've been inconsistent. "
Ole Miss will probably look far more consistent on Saturday, when they host the University of Louisiana-Monroe Indians for the Rebels' home opener.
The Indians, 0-2, present far fewer problems than the Rebels' first two opponents. UL-Monroe's offense has only averaged 14 points per game over their first two contests against LSU and Stephen F. Austin.
ULM's defense has not fared much better. The Indians have given up an average of 36 points in their first two games, which ranks them 100th in Division I-A scoring defense.
By comparison, though, the Ole Miss defense has allowed 32.5 points per game ranking their scoring defense 96th nationwide and 11th in the Southeastern Conference.
Jesse Mitchell, the Rebels' preseason All-SEC selection at defensive tackle, said Ole Miss has been plagued by a lack of focus and missed
assignments. The problems, he maintains, are correctable, but he said UL-Monroe will test that focus.
"Monroe has some great athletes," Mitchell said. "Their tailback, No. 14 (freshman Kevin Payne), is shifty. They've got a wide receiver, No. 17 (Mack Vincent), who is a great athlete who can really catch the ball and burn you. They like to spread you out. They run a lot of screens, so that's something we'll have to be ready for."
Payne has accumulated 199 rushing yards over the Indians' first two games. The rest of the team has gained only nine yards on the ground.
Payne's performance has bolstered an effort by the Indians to become less dependent on their passing game.
"When you're blocking someone and you look up and see your running back 10 yards downfield, you're anxious," said UL-Monroe guard Ben Zapata. "You're excited to get back to the ball and do it again. You want to keep running the football."
Still, the rushing game may not be UL-Monroe's primary weapon. While the Indians have averaged only 191 passing yards, they face an Ole Miss defense that has yielded an average of 343.5 yards through the air, making them the 110th-ranked passing defense in the nation better than only six I-A teams.
Even so, it is the Rebels' own passing offense, led by senior quarterback Eli Manning, that has UL-Monroe head coach Charlie Weatherbie most concerned.
"He (Manning) is everything you would expect a Heisman Trophy candidate to be," Weatherbie said. "He has a very strong arm, and he's a guy who seems to make pretty good decisions. Whether he wins the Heisman or not, he is an outstanding football player."
The deep threat posed by Manning could make itself known Saturday. Big plays have hampered the Indians in their first two games.
Nonetheless, the Indians are confident about facing one of the nation's top quarterbacks. In last year's 31-3 Ole Miss win in Oxford, Manning finished with only 192 passing yards. Although he finished 17-of-31 with one touchdown, he began the game 0-of-5 with an interception.
"As a defense, it (last year's game) gives us a lot of confidence because we know we can play with Ole Miss," said Indians strong safety Travin Moore. "Eli is a smart guy, and we know that he can read a defense real good. We've got to keep moving around, but we know we can play with Eli and his offensive unit."
Last year against the Indians, Ole Miss relied on its running game, which produced 180 yards and three touchdowns. So far this season, the Rebels have scored only once on the ground.
"Our tailback game Saturday was a little better," said Cutcliffe, whose Rebels had 134 rushing yards against Memphis despite having no touchdowns. "We're still a work in progress, so we've got to get there and get there quickly."