OXFORD, Miss. – Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze likes his four running backs, praising them for their depth, toughness and versatility.
Now, he says, all they need is a little room to run.
Ole Miss struggled on offense for three quarters before finally pulling away for a 35-13 victory over Boise State on Thursday. The 18th-ranked Rebels looked uncomfortable from the start — earning two false starts before the first play was run — and gained just 71 rushing yards the entire night.
Though happy with the win on a neutral field at the Georgia Dome, Freeze said the lack of a ground game was disturbing.
"We played tentative and not very physical," Freeze said. "We did a poor job of preparing our kids and we've got to get that fixed."
Ole Miss (1-0) opens Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt (0-1) on Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores struggled in their season-opening 37-7 loss to Temple.
But Freeze said Vanderbilt's strength is a physical defensive line that will make Ole Miss pay if it doesn't improve quickly. The Rebels have an elite left tackle in sophomore Laremy Tunsil, but the rest of the offensive line is a work in progress.
Freeze said the poor start was a big part of the problem against Boise State. Though the early rash of penalties subsided by the second half, the inconsistent play along the offensive line never changed.
Starting running back I'Tavius Mathers managed just 19 yards on eight carries.
Sophomore Mark Dodson — who had a 19-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter — and freshman Jordan Wilkins had a little more success late in the game. Junior Jaylen Walton didn't have a carry but caught three passes for 51 yards. Freeze said all four worked with the limited space they were given.
"They didn't have anywhere to run," Freeze said.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace exacerbated the offensive woes by throwing three interceptions. He recovered with a good second half — finishing with 387 yards passing with four touchdowns while completing 25 of 36 passes.
Wallace said he could have done more to help the running game.
"A couple times I could've checked to a different run," Wallace said. "After watching the film, I realized that could've helped us. Other times, we've just got to get a better push on the offensive line. And guys have to hit the hole and hit it hard."
The SEC looks stacked with good running backs this season, including every-down veterans like Georgia's Todd Gurley, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina's Mike Davis.
But the Rebels don't have anybody like that on the current roster and haven't had a feature running back in more than season. Mathers led Ole Miss with 563 rushing yards last season, leading five different players with at least 300 yards on the ground.
Freeze expects a similar arrangement this season.
"I'm not overly concerned about (not having a feature back)," Freeze said. "We have packages for each guy, and within that package we try to play to their strengths."
Though Vanderbilt has historically been a punching bag for the Southeastern Conference, Ole Miss hasn't been able to join in on the fun.
The Commodores have dominated the Rebels over the past seven seasons, winning five of those games. The Rebels needed a late fourth-quarter comeback last season to edge the Commodores 39-35 in Nashville.
"We're not going to overlook Vanderbilt," Freeze said. "It's an SEC football game on the road. They have good players, particularly on the defensive line, which is a good place to start in this league."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP