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Previewing Alabama vs. Ole Miss: The Rebel defense

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Alabama knows what they’ll get from the Rebel defense this Saturday…will they be better equipped to deal with it than in the previous two attempts?

Wofford v Mississippi
The Ole Miss deefnse is fast and athletic, and they swarm towards the ball.
Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Most pundits pin the success of the Ole Miss Rebels under Hugh Freeze on his innovative offense, the explosive play of senior quarterback Chad Kelly, and an arsenal of athletic wide receivers who make the offense go “boom!”

But lost sometimes in discussions about the Rebels’ rise to power is the Ole Miss defense. They’re athletic, they’re aggressive, and they play from one of the most versatile and difficult to diagnose defensive schemes in the modern game. Add to that equation a coordinator in David Wommack, who has earned quite a reputation as a defensive mastermind, and you get the recipe for the Rebel’s surprisingly good defensive history over the last two seasons.

In a way, the Rebel defense is the “Anti-Alabama.” Both defenses are stocked with elite talent, to be sure. But they are fundamentally different in just about every other conceivable way of evaluating them. The schemes are different, the mechanics are different, the roles are different.

What makes the Ole Miss defense tick? The same thing that has worked for Wommack for the last four years at Ole Miss: talented defensive recruits, a tricky 4-2-5 scheme, speed to burn, and pure naked aggression up front. Though the Rebel defense lost some excellent football players in the likes of Trae Elston, Robert Nkemdiche, Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Hilton, they still have enough talent on the roster to cause problems for an Alabama offense struggling to find its way in the trenches.

It is that battle which will pit the Ole Miss front six against Alabama’s offensive line, a group that has struggled to impose its will in the running game. This heads-up meeting will match the Rebels’ defensive strength against Alabama’s perceived offensive weakness, and if Alabama’s newly minted quarterback gets no help from the running game, it may not matter whether or not the Rebel secondary is green replacing a lot of elite talent.

Unlike the past two seasons, however, Wommack doesn’t have the talent in the back end of the defense to hang his hat upon. For a defense that puts an emphasis on the secondary, such depth issues should be cause for concern against an Alabama offense that can find its stride at any moment and dominate through sheer abundance of razor-sharp talent.

Quite honestly, Alabama was in a very similar situation when they faced Ole Miss in 2015: a new quarterback was learning the ropes, and the offensive line was a bit of a mess and struggled in dominating the point of attack. Alabama rolled Wisconsin (just at it did USC to open this season), then looked like a lethargic mess against a far-lesser opponent in Middle Tennessee State.

The prospect of such similarity could be a scary one, in light of the way that scenario played out last year in the Tide’s game against the Rebels. A third consecutive loss to the same team would be unprecedented in the Saban tenure at Alabama, and with another explosive offense in red and blue facing Saban’s defensive androids, it will be how Alabama’s offense performs against a depleted Rebel defense that could spell the difference in the game.

Will Alabama exorcise its offensive demons from the past two meetings with the Rebel defense? Will Wommack get the better of Lane Kiffin yet again? Or will Alabama’s running attack take shape while quarterback Jalen Hurts evolves into the Tide’s preeminent quarterback? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

For whatever reason ($$$), Ole Miss has done well to recruit defensive talent to a team led by a coach with a reputation as an offensive mastermind. Regardless, Hugh Freeze and his staff have routinely scored some top-flight playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, which is part of the reason they’ve been so successful against their SEC counterparts in the last two years.

After a couple of years with a mature, evolved defensive roster, however, this year the Ole Miss defense is in a bit of a rebuilding phase. Important playmakers like Elston and Hilton are gone, as are the Nkemdiches. One would think the departure of such talent would leave the Rebel D gutted, but that is not the case…at least not overall. Thin in quality depth at some positions? Sure, but their first string is still a nasty assemblage of athletes who have spent time in Wommack’s system and know what’s expected of them as cogs in that defensive machine.

Though the secondary is imminently important for the Rebel defense due to the scheme, the 4-2-5 also depends on stellar defensive line play. Fortunately for Ole Miss, they are indeed loaded across the defensive front, and probably have better depth in that unit tha at any other area of the defense. While the Rebels simply can’t replace an athlete with the versatility and talent of the now-departed Robert Nkemidiche, they have some disruptive playmakers in the heart of the defense who know their roles and fill them.

At tackle, redshirt sophomore Breeland Speaks (6-3 310 pounds) is quite simply a behemoth, though he has the athleticism of a smaller, more agile man. He can soak up blocks in the interior, and together with senior nose D.J. Jones (6-0, 321 pounds), the duo can clog up the middle with their sheer breadth and width. Speaks saw a good bit of action last season at tackle, where he accrued 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, three quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. Those are some fairly versatile stats for a 310-pound human, and Speaks has already proven a critical part of the Rebel run defense thus far in the season.

Jones is tailor-made for the nose role in Wommack’s scheme. He is a big body who is nearly impossible to move, and who can stop up gaps and single-handedly force running backs outside of the tackles. Jones recorded 40 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in 2015.

Against an Alabama offensive line that has been particularly weak in the center, the prospect of facing down the 650 pound tackle tandem in the heart of the Ole Miss defense is daunting to say the least. They are built to stop the run, and they do a good job in that regard after holding FSU phenom Dalvin Cook to only around four yards per carry in their opener.

Spelling Jones when Wommack switches to a lighter front will be smaller-framed nose Isaac Gross, an athletic juggernaut in the middle of the Ole Miss attack. Before an early injury that sidelined him for much of 2015, the 6-1, 263 pound tackle was a terror for opposing offensive lines despite his rather diminutive size for the position, as he was able to outmaneuver lumbering offensive linemen, oftentimes serving the traditional nose role by tying up multiple linemen in double-teams. Freshman Benito Jones (6-2, 308 pounds) will step in for Speaks when the big man needs a breather, as the true freshman has been promoted to the reserve role through a lack of depth at the position combined with a good showing through much of camp.

Flanking the tackles are two equally adept playmakers who are seasoned and experienced in their roles in Wommack’s defense. Junior Marquise Haynes is likely the most dominant 222 pound defensive end you’ll ever see play, as he packages lightning-speed and physicality into a package that can exploit plodding tackles and make life pure hell for quarterbacks.

The Rebels’ sack leader in 2015, Haynes posted 43 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, two passes broken-up, eight quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and three forced fumbles. Haynes is so quick, and has such great balance, that he can scoot around much bigger tackles on the edge, and he’s slippery when he chooses to slip the inside shoulder as well. Much like Alabama’s own Tim Williams, Haynes is the Rebels’ pass-rush specialist, and while he has responsibility in run defense, his primary directive is to affect the quarterback. One would expect Bama left tackle Cam Robinson to be able to handle Haynes, but if the Rebels slide him around to take advantage of a match-up against Bama’s freshman right tackle Jonah Williams, there could be trouble for the Tide.

At the other end position, the Rebels will play a combination of senior John Youngblood (6-3, 255 pounds) and senior Fadol Brown (6-4, 273 pounds). Brown is athletic and physically gifted at 6’4”, 273 pounds. While Haynes is the typical pass-rushing defensive end, the role played by Brown and Youngblood in Wommack’s scheme is to primarily seal the edges and force the run inside and into the girth at tackle. Both men are powerful and athletic enough to blow up tight ends or outmaneuver tackles with his speed and agility. Brown saw a good bit of time in the 2015 Rebel defense, accounting for 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and 10 quarterback hurries. Youngblood, in a lesser role, was responsible for 19 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up and a quarterback hurry.

While small in number, the Ole Miss linebackers are incredibly important to both run and pass defense. They are the literal pivot point between the burly men up front and the speedy defensive backs in the Rebel defensive back field. While called upon at times as slippery pass rushers who use instinct and intuition to root through blocking schemes, they are also an important part of the underneath zone pass coverage on Ole Miss’ patented “fire zone” tactic.

Senior Terry Caldwell (6-1, 216 pounds) will step into the shoes left vacant by the departure of Denzel Nkemdiche, though he posted decent stats in 2015 in relief of the oft-dinged starter. As was the case with the elder Nkemdiche, Caldwell is listed as a linebacker, but physically is more of a safety/ linebacker hybrid at 216 pounds. Caldwell fills the “Stinger” linebacker role for the Rebels, and his responsibilities include both the pass rush and coverage, a task for which he is ideally suited with speed and a thudding physical presence.

Behind Caldwell, the Rebels have junior Tayler Polk (5-11, 212 pounds) and junior Ray Ray Smith (6-2, 216 pounds). As one can discern, the desired size for the Stinger role is rather smallish, as the players filling that position must be fast but physical. Because of the strenuous, rambling nature of the responsibility, expect to see the reserves from time to time when Caldwell needs a breather.

Joining him at the Mike linebacker position will be talented junior DeMarquis Gates (6-2, 211 pounds), who accounted for 76 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes broken up, four quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles in 2015. Along with Gates, the Rebels will put a rotation of senior Rommel Mageo (6-2, 233 pounds) and junior Detric Bing-Dukes (6-1, 247 pounds) in at Mike. While Gates is likewise smaller in frame, both Mageo and Bing-Dukes have the size to add a more physical presence against pro-style, run-heavy teams. Against Alabama, expect to see the heftier options at Mike from time to time if Alabama goes with a run-heavy game plan (though RPOs can completely negate that kind of roster adjustment, truth be told.)

The all-important Ole Miss secondary is loaded with talent, despite the aforementioned loss of Elston and Hilton from 2015’s unit. That talent has not necessarily parlayed into on-the-field performance just yet, as the rather green secondary yielded over 400 yards passing to a true freshman quarterback in the game with Florida State the first week of the season. While the secondary role players may have talent, they’ve been a liability in early action, and will have to be much more disciplined to deal with a rejuvenated Alabama passing attack this week.

Nickel back (or “Husky” in the Ole Miss defensive parlance) is manned once again by senior Tony Connor, a 6-foot, 225 pound former five-star recruit recruited heavily by Bama’s Saban. As was the case with Bama’s former strong safety Landon Collins, it should be illegal for a player to possess both the size and speed of Conner, as he is a solid option in coverage and is a savage hitter who is called upon to step into the box in run support routinely. Conner only played in five games last season due to injury, but he was a disruptive force when on the field. After adding some muscle to his athletic frame, expect the head-hunter in the middle of the secondary to be even more physical a presence in his final campaign in Oxford.

It’s not that the Rebels have no seasoned depth in their secondary, as they will start senior Carlos Davis (5-7, 170 pounds) at field corner, and senior Tony Bridges (6-0, 185 pounds) at the boundary position. Both players have seen some SEC play with decent stats (Davis: 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass broken up, one fumble recovery; Bridges: 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, three sacks, nine passes broken up, three INTs), but neither is quite as adept as his predecessor, as evidenced in the season opener. Sure, both players may grow into their roles, but being tasked with covering Alabama’s deep, elite wide receiving corps three games into the season is a huge obstacle to development.

Behind the starters, there is little quality seasoned depth, as the Rebels will call upon a true freshman in Jaylen Jones (5-11, 177 pounds) and redshirt freshman Jalen Julius (5-10, 172 pounds) to spell their starters.

The rover and free safety positions will also be a bit of an adventure for the Rebels this year, as there are new faces stepping into the fray. At rover, true freshman Myles Hartsfield (5-11, 199 pounds) has the unenviable role of filling Elston’s sizable shoes, while sophomore Zedrick Woods (5-11, 197 pounds) is the Rebel’s most effective option at safety after recording 25 tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and an interception. Behind Woods the Rebels have junior C.J. Hampton (6-0, 186 pounds), who accounted for 27 tackles in 2015. Behind Hartsfield is yet another true freshman in Deontay Anderson (6-1, 217 pounds).

How Ole Miss Can Stop Alabama

In a nutshell, the Rebels are one of a handful of teams across the nation who have a number of ways to keep the Crimson Tide offense in check. While many defenses hope to make the Tide one-dimensional, thus limiting the myriad weapons Kiffin has at his disposal, the Ole Miss defense can stay within its base scheme, matching Alabama talented athlete for talented athlete.

Wommack is somewhat underrated as a defensive mastermind, spending most of his career at mid-majors before joining the Ole Miss staff under Freeze. However, in his fourth year at Ole Miss, Wommack has made a name for himself (he was a Broyles Award nominee as one of the best assistant coaches in the nation) through his innovative use of the 4-2-5 scheme and aggressive play-calling.

While Saban would rather, given a perfect HUNH-free world, play big man-on-big man power defense, Wommack not only uses lighter-framed players to good effect, but he actually prefers more athletic defenders who bring versatility and speed to his fast-flowing scheme. Both defenses are aggressive, but rather than the thudding heavyweight slugfest preferred by Saban and Alabama, the Ole Miss defensive attack is a welterweight flurry of speed and precision.

The strength of the 4-2-5 is that it allows a coach to use a standard, even-numbered four-man front, a benefit that cannot be underestimated. The four-man (one-gap) front simplifies things for the defensive linemen, allowing them to attack their assignments aggressively without the hesitation of a complex read off the snap. In contrast, Alabama’s three-man front involves a great deal of two-gapping, a tactic which forces the linemen to make reads before (and sometimes at) the snap and respond by picking the right gap to attack given the offense. While Bama has made a habit of recruiting the type of lineman who can thrive in the 3-4 defense, Ole Miss’ four-man front makes it easy for the defensive linemen to succeed, even if only tying up blockers so that the speedy linebackers can make things happen in the back field.

That brings us to the linebackers. While Bama tends to use a diversity of linebackers with specialized roles (i.e. the defensive end-like pass-rushing jack, the inside gapper Sam, the roving sideline-to-sideline Will, the run-stopping Mike), the two ‘backers employed by the Rebels have to do a little of everything. The “Stinger” role involves pass rush and coverage of tight ends and running backs in the flats, while the Mike role is responsible for run-stopping and containment. Wommack uses sometimes confusing schemes which overload offensive lines unknowingly, creating opportunities for the athletic linebackers to work their way through the point of attack like flour through a sieve.

Take for example the way the Stinger is used on a blitz package to lethal effect against the run. Say the opponent is in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). While Bama doesn’t run a great deal of two-back with the departure of 2014 fullback Jalston Fowler (unless you count Alabama’s goal-line package from the WKU game that included Bo Scarbrough running behind lead-blocker and linebacker Mack Wilson), you get the idea how Wommack uses the speed of his personnel to get the job done. The four down linemen do their jobs by locking up the blockers, with one end going head-to-head with the tight end, a tackle drawing a double from the left tackle and guard, the nose drawing the attention of the center and right guard, and the speed end edge-rushing around the right tackle.

That accounts for all five offensive linemen and the tight end, right? While those players are mostly stoned at the point of attack, the Rebels have four potential blitzers still left unblocked, with the corners in man coverage on the two receivers. The Mike, safety and Rover all feign a blitz to varying extents, while still putting themselves in position to contain the running play at or near the line given the fact that the blockers are all occupied, with the exception of the second back. One back, however, can’t account for three athletic rushers.

The real kicker is the Stinger, who after a brief delay, uses his instinct to pick his way through the gap created by the double-team by the center and right guard, emerging from behind his nose and right into the running lane, where the ball carrier was headed. The result is often a tackle for loss, or at best, a play for no gain. After all, if the Stinger manages to choose the wrong gap, the rover safety and Mike are still in position to contain the play in most cases.

Unlike last season, Wommack doesn’t have the corners that he can trust to lock down Alabama’s talented receivers in man coverage. Last season, he was blessed with fantastic defensive backs on the edges, and he showed he wasn’t afraid to leave them on Man Island. This lack has caused Wommack to have to be a little more conservative in how he blitzes opponents in 2016, as the defensive backs can’t always be trusted to take the receivers out of the play single-handedly.

This creates all kinds of problems for the mechanics of the Rebel defense, as the parts simply don’t fit when one unit doesn’t play its role to a T. While the defense still works, it is limited by reduced aggressiveness on blitzes. If the corners can’t play man, then safeties/ nickel must be pulled out of run support. If an opponent goes four or five wides, then the inherent benefit of the 4-2-5 is diminished.

When playing with a full arsenal, the defensive backs are just as responsible for defending the run as they are the pass, with safeties (regardless of their nicknames) being called upon to infiltrate the box regularly to stack the odds against the offense and create confusing and unexpected blitz vectors. However, with sub-par corners, the defensive backs have to key on the pass, and their run support role diminishes, thus putting pressure on the front six Rebel defenders. If the offense in question is one that features a heavy complement of RPOs (as Alabama does), the rhythm and flow of the scheme begins to tear apart at the stitches.

Wommack likes to use the corners in run support, which he previously could do without hesitation given the ability of his safeties and corners to defend the pass at a high level. This season, while Conner is a stud at Husky, Wommack is not as free as he once was in using his defensive backs in such a way.

For example, against four wides, the Rebels prefer to line up in a Cover-3 look. The offense gives them three wides to the left side, with a single receiver on the right wing of the offense. The formation is straight pass, but say the offense gets tricky with a run-pass option (as Alabama is fond of doing), opting in this case to go pitch to the back on a speed option. The edge receivers are covered by the corners, the Rover covers up the slot and the Husky has responsibility for the tight end/ H-back. The free safety floats over the top towards the field side, while the Stinger has responsibility for the flat on the weak side. The defensive linemen rush according to responsibility, while the Mike brings soft pressure in the middle gap.

This way, the pass options are covered schematically, and given there are no blown coverages or mental lapses, the Rebel defensive backs are in position to defend all legitimate passing options. The quarterback opts for the speed option pitch, with the back scooting out towards the space between the Y and H receivers, who, undoubtedly, are doing their best to tie up the nickel and safety to create a running lane.

However, that plan is stymied when the boundary corner reads the speed option and breaks off of coverage, streaking down to overload the gap with athleticism to make a play on the ball. Such a play could result in considerable yardage if the corner simply stays with his coverage assignment, but Wommack gives his corners not only the flexibility, but the accountability, for playing to stop the run. He trusts the instincts and reads of his playmakers, and it has paid dividends for a Rebel defense in the past, albeit with better, more experienced talent in the secondary.

Again, the Rebel defense goes as the defensive backs go, and this season, the secondary isn’t up to the usual standard. Don’t expect to see the defensive backs in run support often against Alabama (they’ll have their hands full in pass defense alone). There are two reasons for this. First, Alabama doesn’t yet possess the dominant running game it tends to develop through the course of the year. There is no Derrick Henry, and the line has struggled to assert its will.

The other half of the equation is on the Ole Miss side. Because Alabama has an array of gifted receivers, and because Ole Miss doesn’t have defensive backs who can be counted on in man coverage, they won’t be able to do what they’ve done in previous years...at least not exactly. Wommack wil still run his principles, but he may have to do so in less aggressive fashion. If the Rebels commit DBs to run support, Hurts and the receivers will shred them alive. Conversely, if they have to dedicate defensive backs to coverage, Hurts can run zone read to great effect, and Alabama’s run game should find room to prosper.

The Tide likes to count on its offensive line to overload defenses and create space with zone blocking. This, however, could work against Bama versus Ole Miss, as the Rebel linebackers themselves thrive off of space, oftentimes sensing a gap and appearing out of nowhere to make a play. Alabama won’t be able to “big boy” the Ole Miss defensive front, and will instead have to count on some degree of subterfuge to use the Rebels speed and aggressiveness against them. If there was ever a time for a solid screen attack, this would be it.

Alabama’s offense must be patient, above all, and understand the task ahead of it. So far this season, the Tide offense has started slowly before steadily building a lead, then used attrition and superior athletes to build upon said lead over four quarters. With Alabama’s defense already hitting on all cylinders, such would be a safe tack against an Ole Miss team that definitely counts its offense as its greatest strength. The Tide will not score on every series, especially with a running game that has struggled outside of a few big plays, and no one should hold that as a reasonable expectation against a good (rather than great) Ole Miss defense.

The Result

Honestly, this is one of the scariest games on Bama’s schedule once again this year, and for good reason. While the Rebel running game does not inspire trepidation, Ole Miss has a legitimate passing attack that has caused Alabama problems in the previous two meetings. Given that, it will be crucial for Alabama to find the weaknesses in the Rebel defense and exploit them to the fullest extent.

Speaking of exploiting weaknesses, how will the Tide do that? One has to expect that Ole Miss will get a heavy dose of the passing game. With Jalen Hurts coming into his own and Kiffin becoming more comfortable with his strengths and weaknesses, expect Alabama to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Ole Miss secondary. If there’s any takeaway regarding Alabama’s offense in the last two weeks, it’s that the wide receiving corps is probably the nation’s best, with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster, Gehrig Dieter…the list goes on and on. There’s no secondary in the country that can handle that type of firepower, especially when tight end O.J. Howard factors into the equation. It’s just too much, and with Hurts’ confidence and awareness growing, the calm, confident freshman will be able to slash the Ole Miss secondary like a B-horror flick machete murderer.

That is, if Alabama’s offensive line can continue to excel in pass protection as they’ve done in the previous two games. While the interior portion of the line has failed to gain consistent push in the running game thus far, the line as a whole has kept Hurts clean without Kiffin resorting to a moving pocket (at least most of the time). Not that the moving pocket is a bad thing, as throughout his time at Alabama, Hurts has demonstrated he’s comfortable (maybe even moreso) executing the passing game from a rolling pocket, whether on designed zone read looks or when his protection has elapsed and he’s scrambled.

The running game will be a bit more of a challenge. With Ole Miss’ beef squared up against the portion of the Alabama line that’s struggled the most, unless there’s a sea-change in the Tide’s run blocking this week, there won’t be a lot of room between the tackles. Ole Miss will hold the fort in the middle, and if the Tide is going to have much success, they’re going to have to run at the Rebels’ smallish ends. The Rebel defense uses its secondary in run support often, and one can expect Alabama to set up later plays by running outside to the boundary to pull those defensive backs up in run support. Later on, the Tide offense can use those same looks with RPOs to pull the DBs up, then let Hurts check out of the run and slice the out-of-position secondary playing in man or loose, fractured zone coverages. Either way will produce profit for the Tide offense, and be certain that Kiffin knows this.

Ole Miss has excellent schemes for creating underneath zone coverage with as many as four defenders, a tactic which takes away an opponent’s short passing game and hot reads. Expect the underneath routes that have been Hurts’ bread-and-butter to be clogged with defenders. However, unlike in previous years, Ole Miss won’t be able to trust their corners against Bama’s passing game, and if they do (and if Hurts’ accuracy is on point), there will be opportunities to exploit against the Ole Miss DBs on middle to deep passing routes. The ability to take advantage of these opportunities for explosive plays with the speed Alabama has on the edge at receiver could very well be the way the Tide breaks the Ole Miss defense. Hurts has shown he can execute such a strategy against better corners (as in the case of USC), so there’s no reason to think those opportunities won’t be there against a lethargic Ole Miss secondary.

The screen game, typically used against aggressive attacking defenses like the one Ole Miss employs, may be more effective this year than it was previously against the Ole Miss 4-2-5. Last season, Ole Miss was able to pinch the line with additional defensive backs (given the lack of the deep pass threat). That would be a mistake against this Tide receiving corps, however, and with defensive backs playing off the line as a result, the Rebels will be counting on their front six (four down linemen and two linebackers) to create havoc in the pass rush and running lanes. The cushion and aggressive front will leave room for the execution of Kiffin’s beloved screen game, and if the Alabama’s running attack falters, the screen could keep the offense moving.

With the Rebels’ explosive offense, the best defense will be to keep them off the field. The offense has the task of chipping away at the Ole Miss D, working the clock and scoring when given the chance.

Simply put, to be successful against the Ole Miss defense, Alabama must be simplistic, flawless, opportunistic and smart. Long drives (whether buoyed by the running game or short gains through the air) will be the letter of the day. That said, there will be explosive plays to be made against a struggling Rebel secondary with a bit of a talent and experience deficit, so Alabama must simply find ways to generate first downs while waiting to drive the dagger in the Rebels’ heart with the big plays throughout the game.

Simply put, the Tide will need its best offensive performance of the season to salt away a victory against the Rebels.