It's a big weekend in Oxford, Miss., as No. 24 Ole Miss (7-3, 3-3 SEC) host No. 8 Missouri (9-1, 5-1) in the final home game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this season.
Ole Miss has endured the ups and downs you'd expect from a team lacking in experience and long on injuries. It's been a week-to-week struggle for Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff. With so many freshmen and sophomores contributing, consistency was almost an unattainable goal, as evidenced by the way Ole Miss won three straight to start the season, lost three in a row in the middle and is closing out the season riding a four-game winning streak.
But will the upward trajectory last? We'll certainly find out on Saturday.
As the Rebels head into a key game, co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner was kind enough to answer a few of ESPN's questions about the program, the team's turnaround, and, most importantly, Missouri.
How is the preparation going for Mizzou? What stands out to you in the film?
Werner: First off, they're a really good football team, obviously. They pose a lot of problems. I like our preparation and our guys are excited about it. These are the type of games you want to play.
Both their defensive ends are just really hard to block. We just got done watching third downs and there are guys taking beatings, some of these quarterbacks who faced them. Being the quarterbacks coach, obviously I have some issues with that. So we're just trying to find ways to get a block.
They're just so sound, all the way around. They know down-and-distance situations, you can tell they're really well-coached on those types of things. They don't give up big plays. Their front is moving all the time, they're very rarely just lined up and coming right at you, there's always some sort of game or stunt, and it puts a lot of pressure on you.
I want to take a little bit of a step back. You guys started off hot and then went through a buzz saw with Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M, losing all three games. Since then you've gone on a four-game winning streak. What have you done to turn it around?
Werner: The first thing that happened was we played the No. 1, the No. 6 and the No. 12 teams in the country, so no matter how good you play you're going to have a tough day against those guys. Now did we play our best? No, but we don't play our best in probably any games. It has as much to do with who we were playing versus how we were playing.
But that being, said we did come back and beat LSU a couple weeks ago, and they were ranked No. 6 at the time. The thing we proved is we can play with anybody. Are we where we want to be? No, but we're definitely on our way and we feel good about things.
How important was that LSU win? You came off a really tough late loss against Texas A&M. To come off that and hold on against LSU, what did that mean for this season? It felt like a big moment for the program, no?
Werner: There's no doubt. Just here in the last year-and-a-half, we've had so many close games against good football teams and it was just like we'd come up short right at the end for whatever reason. So for us to hang on and not only beat them, but they came back, and it was sort of like deja vu because we had the lead and the team comes back and beats us at the end, but our guys never quit, they just kept going and going. They took it down the last drive and kicked the field goal, and it says a lot about the character of our guys. It's a testament to our head coach. [Hugh Freeze] has kept on preaching positive thoughts to our guys, and they believe it.
It said a lot about Bo Wallace, too. He took a lot of shots during the losing streak. What does it say about him bouncing back to get through that and play well down the stretch?
Werner: Well, the same thing it says about our whole team that he just has character and keeps on battling. That's what we try to do. Our motto here is "Win the day" and our football mindset is to "Win the play" and what happened happened and you can't do anything about so let's move on to the next play. He obviously did that.
You said Freeze did a good job of preaching positive thoughts. How important has it been with such a young football team that's dealt with some adversity and some injuries to do that?
Werner: It's important for any team, but then you throw in the fact that you're playing in a conference like we do, where you know you're going to have so many good teams that you play against. And then, like I said, you throw in the injuries and the young players playing a bunch, it's just so important to be positive. And that's why, as a coaching staff, we've bought in and so have the players, into what he's talking about. Some coaches, when things aren't going well, all of the sudden they come in and get more intense and screaming and yelling and getting negative, and he's the opposite. He comes in and talks about the good things that are happening and how close we are, and obviously the players have bought into it, and knock on wood, we'll just keep getting better.
Finally, what are a couple of keys in your mind to beating Missouri?
Werner: The thing that I've seen is they get a lot of sacks, which creates negative plays and gets you into third-and-long. They get a lot of interceptions, too. So the big thing that I've been preaching to our guys is to protect the quarterback and protect the football. If we do that, we feel like we can move the ball. They're a good defense. They haven't given up more than 28 points all year so it's not like we're planning on going out there and scoring 40-55 points. There's going to be some third downs we're not going to get so let's be smart with the football, punt it and play defense. We just need to protect the ball and protect the quarterback.