Rebels look to escape fourth-quarter woes

Before you can even finish uttering the words "fourth quarter" together, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford cuts you off to convey the feelings that have haunted the Rebels for the last year.

"Finishing, finishing, finishing," Shackelford said. "No doubt we have the talent, we just have to finish it."

His words are deafening around Ole Miss' football complex. For all the good that came out of Hugh Freeze's first season as the Rebels' head coach, there was a lot of bad in the fourth quarter. A 7-6 season was nice, but there were at least two more victories there if not for fourth-quarter stumbles.

The Rebels were outscored 109-92 in fourth quarters in 2012. Ole Miss was outscored in the final frame in all six losses, while outscoring opponents in the fourth in four of its seven wins.

But where they felt the sting the most was in fourth quarters against LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Ole Miss blew a 10-point lead to the Aggies with help from a failed fourth-and-1 late and an 88-yard A&M touchdown drive. LSU went back-and-forth, but the Rebels were outscored 21-7 in the fourth. But Vanderbilt hurt the most, as the Rebels lost a 23-6 third-quarter lead.

"If you go watch the tape and you go look at the stat sheet and everything, you're gonna say, 'You know what? I think I'd pick that Ole Miss won these three games,'" Freeze said, whose team out-gained LSU and Vandy in both losses.

Instead, they went 0-3 and were left with three too many "what ifs."

The Rebels are looking to avoid the "what ifs" in 2013. Youth, inexperience and depth issues contributed to some of Ole Miss' fourth-quarter follies, Shackelford said, but the Rebels' staff will take preparing for the fourth quarter a step further this season.

Strength coach Paul Jackson made life for players a living hell during the offseason. Depth issues remain so making players more physically fit for the fourth quarter became a top priority during training season.

So what did the Rebels endure? A ton of short sprints, shuttles (suicide runs), 100-yard sprints and fast-paced, fast-twitch workouts. When breaks finally came, they were short. Twenty-to-25 seconds for sprints, while fast-twitch workouts went to exhaustion.

Linebacker Mike Marry said the toughest conditioning drill was the 90-yard suicide shuttles, while receiver Donte Moncrief dreaded the 100-yard sprints. For those, skill players had to make it to the end zone in at least 13 seconds, linebackers had 15 seconds and linemen had 17 seconds. Players did 10 with 20-second breaks.

"Doing those, you can look in someone's face and say he's giving it everything he's got," Moncrief said.

Conditioning was brutal, but players agree that it was worth it. This team seemed drained in fourth quarters in 2012, especially in those three crushing losses.

Tonight's opponent, Vandy, punched the Rebels in the jaw at home last season by ending last year's game on a 21-3 run after trailing by 17 in the third quarter. It started with a 52-yard third-quarter touchdown catch by Jordan Matthews and ended with a 26-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Even though Ole Miss out-gained the Commodores 145-101 in the fourth and 249-239 in the second half, the Rebels mustered just 10 second-half points and went 4-for-10 on third down, including a failed third-and-goal in the fourth that led to a field goal.

"We gotta be able to last throughout the game because it's a brutal conference," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said.

The Rebels hope their bodies come through in the fourth, but they're also counting on their minds. Those fourth-quarter wounds are still fresh, but that pain serves as a motivator.

"I don't like to lose, but in a way, losing some of those close games is going to help this program in the future," Marry said. "It lets the players see that you have to give it your all each and every play. Even when you're up, you can't relax because the other team can always bounce back."