A look around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at roughly 8:30 P.M. on Thanksgiving night painted a vivid and accurate portrait of the state of the Ole Miss football program.
Mississippi State ran its way to a 28-3 lead in the third quarter in an Egg Bowl it would win in convincing fashion. The stadium was sparsely populated despite efforts to fill it that included giving away a free ticket with the purchase of one. The atmosphere was dead. The product on the field was the shattered remains of a program Hugh Freeze ran into the ground.
The state of the Ole Miss program and the widespread apathy amongst the fanbase isn’t entirely on Matt Luke’s shoulders. With that said, Luke had an opportunity to put his stamp on this program in 2018 and failed to do so in many regards. He rode into the season with two coordinators Freeze hired. Phil Longo wrecked the Ferrari that was the offense — a Ferrari comprised of pieces that Freeze recruited. The defense is devoid of talent but under Wesley McGriff they played in a manner in which it is impossible to blame it on a lack of talent alone.
Ole Miss won five games in 2018. It beat two power five teams: Texas Tech in the season opener and an Arkansas team poised to go 2-10. It’s worth noting Razorbacks had their starting quarterback and running back knocked out of the ballgame in the second half of that win in Little Rock. After a 5-2 start that felt hollow, the Rebels lost five straight games to end the season.
The defense showed spurts of improvement down the stretch before usually succumbing to a lack of depth and the aforementioned talent deficiency. The offense boasted three receivers and a left tackle that could be drafted in the first round of April’s NFL draft. It set records for yardage, but led the country in red zone field goals. The red zone dysfunction and third down inefficiencies put a thin defense on the field a lot. Conversely, the porous defense put immense pressure on the offense to put up points in abundance. It created a path to victory so narrow one couldn’t reasonably expect the Rebels to follow it to the finish line.
The team as a whole lacked discipline. Ole Miss entered the night as the second most penalized team in the SEC and 22nd nationally. An ugly skirmish broke out in the third quarter of this loss — though that particular instance can hardly be blamed on Luke and his staff given the things that have occurred off the field the last four years in this rivalry.
“It got out of control,” Luke said. “That is not what we want.”
But the point remains that Ole Miss was a wildly undisciplined football team this season.
Luke had his chance to put his stamp on the program this year and largely did not. He feels it is a multi-year process.
“It’s a work in progress,” Luke said. “When you are down scholarships and with everything that has happened, it is time to go recruit and get this thing back to full strength. It will get better and we will continue to build that tough, hard-nosed, blue collar football team that we want to get to. Nights like tonight will help us get to that.”
Change is needed and change is likely coming with regards to the assistant coaching staff. For the first time in Luke’s very young head coaching career, he will be faced with some tough decisions. Does he restructure the staff and how? Is defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff retained or let go? Does Luke view the defensive struggles as a talent issue or a scheme issue? If it is both, which one does he weigh more heavily? Luke wasn’t ready to discuss these things following the game.
“Tonight it is about the kids,” Luke said. “As we move forward, we will evaluate everything. Tonight, I am going to make it about the seniors.
What does he do with an offense that regressed and was putrid in the red zone? Ole Miss got a glimpse into its offensive future when Jordan Ta’amu dislocated his finger in the first quarter and permanently placed the keys of the offense into freshman Matt Corral’s hands. Corral was 5-of-8 for 65 yards with an interception. Longo has been linked to the head coaching vacancy at Texas State. Naturally, one would believe he desires to be a head coach just as any assistant does.
“Right now, my focus is on Mississippi State,” Longo said. “Tomorrow, when I get up, my focus will be on recruiting. That is where I am at right now. We love Oxford.”
What Ole Miss does in the coming days, coming weeks and the coming months before the 2019 season will drastically effect the long term health of the program far more than any result on the field did this year. To put it plainly, Ole Miss needs better players and a lot of them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That will also go a long way in rejuvenating interest amongst fanbase in which apathy is rampant. The NCAA haze that’s clouded the program for a half decade has dissipated. Ole Miss got its unofficial visits restriction lifted. The bowl ban is over. What does it do next? Luke immediately began speaking about the future at his postgame press conference following the loss.
“It’s time to move forward,” Luke said. “It is time to go recruit and get this thing back to full strength and it’s time to go to work.”
It will be an uphill battle, and whether Luke is able to accomplish these things and how he goes about doing that in the time allotted to him will ultimately determine his fate.