“We’ve got to keep playing with our eyes. Keep running to the ball. Make sure that we’re a sound defense,” said the senior defensive lineman. “We have to be sound in everything we’re doing. Make sure we’re competitive on every snap. And be physical. That’s the No. 1 thing.”
Against Alabama last Saturday they were indeed that. The Rebels hit the Crimson Tide and hit them hard, time and time again, throughout the game. The powerful, No. 1 ranked team had just 305 yards of total offense, even though scoring seven times. But four of those were field goals, and only three were touchdowns. And one of the touchdowns was a 99-yard kickoff return.
Pena said the Rebels were ready.
“Just having that mental thought in our head that we’re going up against the No. 1 team in the nation, we just wanted to come out and be as physical as possible,” said the 6-foot-4, 317-pounder from junior college, in his second season with Ole Miss. “I think we practiced like that. We practice physical all the time. But I think (last) week we might have hit it on the head and just competed at the highest level possible.”
Pena said the Rebels (3-2, 0-1 SEC) simply need to keep that type of intensity, effort, preparation, and performance the rest of the season.
“(Consistency) is going to be our goal,” he said. “I’m sure the coaches will put in a great game plan for us (each week). We just have to go out there and practice and be competitive and make sure we’re going all out.”
Like this week against Texas A&M (3-1, 1-1 SEC). The Aggies present a much different style of offense than Alabama. It’s much more similar to the Ole Miss offense. The Rebel defenders are indeed familiar with many aspects of it.
“I believe that most definitely is something that will help us, the fact that they run a similar style offense,” Pena said. “I want to say it gives our defense an advantage; a head start, at least. We have an understanding how fast it’s going to be, what the tempo is going to be like, and make sure we get to the ball.”
Johnny Manziel, the Aggies' elusive quarterback that’s only a redshirt freshman, has the Rebels’ attention. He has made some spectacular plays this season. He’s this week’s Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said the way he extends plays and extends drives helps make the A&M offense potent.
Pena said Manziel is going to be a handful, but he believes the Rebel defense can be up to the task of slowing down him and the Aggies.
“He’s going to make the most plays outside of the pocket,” Pena said of Manziel. “As long as we can make him uncomfortable, I think we’ll be alright.
“The most important thing to stopping (the Aggie offense) is really just getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Just let him feel like there’s pressure around so he can throw bad passes. Obviously we want to get him out of the pocket since he’s a good runner, try to keep him contained, and kind of just make him uncomfortable,” Pena continued. “Make him feel like there’s somebody in his face, that he’s going to throw a bad ball, throw an interception, an incomplete pass, something like that."
Pena knows that’s a tall order. But he remains confident the Rebels can continue to play good defense as they have the past two games.
“As long as we do our job, just get to the quarterback, play physical and fast, I think we’ll be alright in this game,” he said. “Our confidence is pretty up there. I think the team has a different view now of where we can be, especially the way we played against Alabama, competing on that level. I think the guys feel like now is the time to really, really show what we’re about.”
Pena, in his last season of college football, said he just wants to get better, along with the entire squad.
“Just really working on my eyes and putting my hands in the right place,” he said of how he’s improved in 2012. “Really just keeping my weight down. That was my biggest concern coming into camp. Now I want to maintain or even if I could drop a little lower. And just keep competing. Keep competing to get better each week. Kind of like the team.”