|Randall Mackey holds on for a TD in the Rebels' 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. (US Presswire)|
OLE MISS WON: Coach Hugh Freeze capped an impressive debut season as Mississippi rolled to a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., wrapping up the program's first winning season since 2009. The Rebels emerged from a three-game slide at the end of the season to knock off Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, and on Saturday against Pittsburgh, Ole Miss -- particularly on defense -- kept the momentum going from that big rivalry-game win. The short distance from Oxford to Legion Field in Birmingham allowed Ole Miss fans to create a home game atmosphere, which aided the Compass Bowl in setting an attendance record.
With Pittsburgh's leading rusher, Ray Graham, out of the game due to a hamstring injury, the Panthers offense struggled to get in a rhythm against a young and speedy Ole Miss defense. Tino Sunseri completed just 16 of 32 passes against the Rebels and threw his first interception since Sept. 15. By the end of the game, Ole Miss held Pittsburgh to just 4 for 16 on third downs and only 264 total yards of offense.
HOW OLE MISS WON: The consistent play of the defense was crucial. Both offenses were inconsistent throughout the game, but during the few spurts where Bo Wallace could not keep the chains moving there was Mike Marry and the Ole Miss defense to shut down the Panthers and get the ball right back.
Wallace did deliver scoring drives when Ole Miss needed it most, first jumping out to an early 14-0 lead and then having an answer after each of Pittsburgh's scores. Whether it was Wallace picking apart soft Pitt coverage or Barry Brunetti taking care of business near the goal line, Ole Miss never allowed the Panthers to feel like they had a chance to win this game.
WHEN OLE MISS WON: Early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh's defense forced a three-and-out that gave Sunseri the ball near midfield trailing 31-10. The game wasn't over yet, but Pitt needed a touchdown to get the comeback started. Instead, three short Rushel Shell runs and an incomplete pass led to an immediate turnover on downs. On the very next play, freshman running back I'Tavius Mathers broke free at the line of scrimmage and sprinted for a 62-yard touchdown. That's when the red-clad crowd began letting the "S-E-C!" chants rain down on the Panthers.
WHAT OLE MISS WON: The Rebels could have possibly made this even less of a game if it were not for two turnovers and a whopping 14 penalties accepted that totaled 118 yards. Freeze told ESPN the Rebels "kept getting in their own way," and insisted that this game is just a building block. While the bowl win is notable for Freeze's first season, he is right that this season needs to be a launching point. The defense is young, and the offensive line has established some continuity. With back-to-back wins in the Egg Bowl and Compass Bowl, the Rebels have plenty of momentum heading into the offseason.
WHAT PITTSBURGH LOST: While it was nice to actually have the same head coach in place for the Compass Bowl this time, the third consecutive trip to Birmingham ends on a sour note for the second year in a row. It was frustrating to see Pittsburgh's offense struggle, knowing that a healthy Graham -- who totaled more 2,000 yards across the last two seasons -- would have made a big difference. The Panthers also could have built on the momentum of two consecutive wins to close the regular season, but instead make their journey to the ACC with a loss as their last Big East memory.
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