We go back to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger well for our weekly visit with an opposing beat writer, and Hugh Kellenberger (@HKellenbergerCL) is perfectly up to the task. Hugh goes deep on that other Hugh, Bo Wallace, the Rebels’ SEC drought and the traditional beauty of The Grove and the Square on a fall Saturday morning.
Hugh Kellenberger: I’ve seen four coaching changes up close to this point in my career, and Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) has made the most dramatic culture change inside a program in the course of a year that I’ve ever come across. He expects and demands accountability, and players have responded by going to class and (mostly) staying out of trouble. He installed an offense and a defense that would force great effort, and guys have responded. There are things Hugh could not change, namely the overall talent level and lack of depth. But the ones he could force change, he has done so in fairly dramatic fashion from the days of Houston Nutt.
As for the second part of your question (which is, by the way, easily the best I’ve come across in doing various Q&A formats this season): it’s become just another thing. His wife has joked that she’ll remember my name. There are times where someone says Hugh before a press conference starts and we both turn. But the day it was really awesome was on the day he was hired, which was this cold and rainy day in early December. I was exhausted, as you might imagine, and was really just dragging myself through the day (and knowing that I know had an athletic director search to cover). But then Hugh Freeze walked onto the stage at the Ford Center, and the students started chanting “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh …” Talk about an adrenaline boost.
AB: Tough week for Bo Wallace. What do you expect out of his mindset this week, and is there a decent chance we see Barry Brunetti in an expanded role?
Kellenberger: It’s been a really rough week for Bo Wallace. He takes the losses hard, and blames himself for the turnovers that tied the game before half (which wasn’t his fault; that was fluky) and the interception that ended the last drive (which he should blame himself for; it was a terrible read). We talked to Wallace Monday and he was fairly aggressive in saying he was tired of being told “good job, good effort,” and that it was time to win some games. And then his sister has a car accident that night, which led to six hours of surgery to repair a broken neck Tuesday afternoon. She’s doing better, though it’ll be a long rehab process for her. I expect Bo to come out and play about the same he has all season: he’ll make plays that no other QB on this roster can make, but he’ll also make a couple of mistakes that make you shake your head. We’ll see Barry Brunetti in spots, but I would not imagine it to be anything significant.
AB: Texas and Texas A&M combined for 640 rushing yards. Conversely, Alabama had just 125 yards, and UTEP and Tulane combined for a paltry 51. Is that simply a product of opponents, or is this rush defense merely inconsistent?
Kellenberger: My theory is that it is all about formation. Texas was almost exclusively in the spread, and Texas A&M throws five wide receiver sets at you all day long. That spread out Ole Miss’ defense, and both of those teams were able to gash the huge open holes for big gains. They exposed Ole Miss’ relative lack of lateral speed and not great pursuit angles to the ball, and the front didn’t get off the blockers fast enough to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Alabama and UTEP mostly lined up in the box and ran right at you, and Ole Miss was able to scheme to that (using a 4-3 against Bama, for instance). Unworried about the deep pass, they walked up Cody Prewitt into the box and he was relentless (13 tackles in Tuscaloosa). As far as Tulane, that’s just a terrible football team and, as I wrote after the game, an offensive line that would have trouble keeping drunks in a bar.
AB: A 16-game losing streak is a 16-game losing streak. Does that weigh on the players, and do they feel this could be ‘the week’?
Kellenberger: As much as Hugh Freeze would like to ignore the streak, and he has the right to say he’s 0-2, not 0-16, a lot of players on this team have experienced one or zero SEC wins. That’s shocking. It weighs on them, but I also mentioned culture change in the answer to the first question. Stuff seems to bother this group less week-to-week than it did a year ago. Because of that, I think this team looks as Auburn as a game it should win and needs to win, but knows not to assume the game is over before it is, and also won’t back down if Auburn comes out and scores early.
AB: For Auburn fans making their first trip to The Grove, what exactly makes Oxford special on game day?
Kellenberger: What I like about the gameday atmosphere isn’t necessarily the Grove, though that is a place everyone should experience at least once. It’s how the Grove and the Square (Oxford’s downtown area) connect and the whole town becomes enveloped by the fact there’s a game today. I don’t go to the Grove all that much, because I’m there to work and there are a lot of things that happen there that are frowned upon in the workplace. It’s best to avoid these things. But my family and I will go to the Square for lunch before evening games, and I’m always amazed how it becomes an extension of what is happening on campus. We were at Boure before the Texas games and there were Hotty Toddy chants and UT chants going back and forth throughout the restaurant. It’s different, to say the least.