OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — In the final few minutes of No. 3 Mississippi’s 34-3 victory over Tennessee, the Volunteers decided to go for it on fourth-and-1, giving the ball to Derrell Scott for a run right up the middle.
He couldn’t even get back to the line of scrimmage. Issac Gross met Scott in the backfield, wrapping him up and slamming him to the turf as those that remained at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium roared in approval.
It was an exclamation point to a nearly flawless night for the Ole Miss defense, which is already statistically the best in the Southeastern Conference and improving.
Bo Wallace completed 13 of 28 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns, connecting with Vince Sanders and Evan Engram on the scores. Sanders had 108 yards receiving.
That was more than enough for the Ole Miss defense.
“They’re phenomenal,” Wallace said. “They’re fun to watch. Before the season I knew they were good. I didn’t know they were this good. All I have to do is take care of the ball.”
Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0 SEC) fell behind 3-0 early in the second quarter, but scored the next 34 points. With a relatively easy win, the Rebels continued their best start since 1962.
Ole Miss came into the game giving up just 11.8 points per game, which ranked first in the SEC and second in the country.
The Rebels lived up to those numbers, stuffing Tennessee’s running game and harassing quarterback Justin Worley nearly every time he tried to throw. Worley threw three interceptions and the Volunteers (3-4, 0-3) also lost a fumble.
“Turnovers were the story of the game,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We had a lot of negative yardage. When you are 3 for 16 on third-down conversions you are not giving yourself an opportunity to be in the game and win.”
Tennessee’s young offensive line, which includes two starting freshmen, had no answer for a relentless Ole Miss pass rush. The Rebels’ defense had seven sacks, including 2 1/2 from star freshman Marquis Haynes. Senquez Golson grabbed two interceptions, pushing his league-leading total to seven.
“Things are rolling for us for sure,” Golson said. “We have the best defensive line, the best linebacker corps and the most potential. But it doesn’t mean anything until the end of the season.”
Ole Miss has allowed only six touchdowns all season. The Volunteers never came particularly close to the end zone on Saturday and finished with 191 total yards, including zero yards rushing.
“When you make someone one-dimensional, you’ve got a good chance to win,” Freeze said. “I did think we were able to get consistent pressure with our front four.”
The night started with dominant defense from both sides.
Ole Miss didn’t earn a first down until its fourth drive and Tennessee took a 3-0 lead early in the second quarter on Aaron Medley’s 27-yard field goal. That would be the Volunteers’ lone offensive highlight.
Wallace suffered through a slow start, completing just 4 of his first 15 passes. But two straight completions to Sanders — a 28-yarder and then a 39-yard touchdown — gave the Rebels a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter and finally ignited the offense.
He didn’t have a standout game on Saturday, but continued to minimize mistakes. He hasn’t had a turnover in four SEC games.
Golson grabbed his first interception of the game on Tennessee’s ensuing drive, and Ole Miss turned that into another touchdown when Jaylen Walton ran 7 yards for the score and a 14-3 halftime lead.
Tennessee had some decent moments on offense, but couldn’t consistently protect Worley when he tried to throw. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior was sacked five times and threw two interceptions in the first half.
Ole Miss pulled away in the third quarter, pushing its lead to 24-3 on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to a diving Engram.
Worley finished 19 of 34 passing for 191 yards. Josh Malone caught five passes for 75 yards. Linebacker A.J. Johnson had 10 tackles.
Tennessee has traditionally dominated the series with Ole Miss, winning 12 straight games from 1984 to 2005. But Ole Miss has changed a lot of trends under third-year coach Hugh Freeze and has now won two out of the last three meetings.
“If you look at stats, and everybody does, if we score 17, 20 or in the mid-20s, we have a chance to win a lot of games with the way the (defense) is playing,” Freeze said.
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