The result was about what was expected for Ole Miss in its 59-31 loss to Alabama, but wasn’t as destructively demoralizing as the Rebels’ last two meetings against the Crimson Tide, a pair of matchups they lost by a combined 128-10.
Ole Miss moved the football well in spurts against a young but still formidable Alabama defense. It totaled 476 yards of offense. True freshman John Rhys Plumlee made his first career start in adverse circumstances and “acquitted himself well,” as offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez put it. But the Rebels were abused by a tremendously talented receiving corps, and more specifically by junior DeVonta Smith who torched the Ole Miss secondary by way of 11 catches for 274 yards and five touchdowns. Smith had eight grabs for 221 yards and four touchdowns at halftime. Ole Miss was outmatched and the result was never realistically in any doubt.
With all of that said, what are the most pressing issues facing a team with an arduous path ahead?
- Let’s start with the obvious: the quarterback uncertainty. It would’ve been hard to fault Plumlee for succumbing to the unfavorable conditions that accompanied his first career collegiate start — on the road against the No. 2 team in the country, facing a Pete Golding defense. But Plumlee fared decently well. His numbers through the air were not strong. He went 10-of-28 for 142 yards with two touchdown passes. Plumlee’s greatest strength — his feet — gleaned as he rushed 25 times for 109 yards and a score.
“I thought John Rhys competed well,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Coming into a tough environment, we didn’t have a whole lot of pre-snap penalties. I thought he managed the game well. He used his legs effectively. I think he rushed for over 100 yards. But again, we’ve got to do some things around him to help.”
Plumlee broke the Crimson Tide defensive line’s containment and extended plays with his feet. His quickness jarred the Alabama defense. Early on in the game, Rodriguez featured a lot of two-back sets and ran triple and read option concepts with Plumlee. It was successful, too. It is not a coincidence that Plumlee’s insertion into the lineup saw him lead the team in carries and rushing yards. He was limited throwing the football. Some of that is because of his limitations as a passer and some of it is related to the Rebels not having a reliable downfield threat at receiver. Like most of the offense, the receiving corps is young. Jonathan Mingo, Demarcus Gregory and Miles Battle have yet to hit their stride and the passing game has suffered.
But above all of that, the moment didn’t appear too big for Plumlee.
“I was probably most impressed talking to him after every series when he came to the sideline,” Rodriguez said. “What he was seeing. His eyes were in the right spot and he knew what was going on. For his first time starting, that was pretty good.”
So what does Ole Miss do from here at quarterback? Corral will likely be healthy heading into next week’s game against Vanderbilt. It is hard to evaluate Plumlee off one game against an opponent of that caliber, on the road in his first start. But it seems clear Corral is a more polished passer at this point in the two quarterbacks’ development. Plumlee offers more with his feet, which is significant in Rodriguez’ scheme. Do Luke and Rodriguez script a package of plays for Plumlee each game to utilize the quickness he flashed at Bryant-Denny? Do you ride with Corral on a short leash? Can Corral survive another quarter like his third quarter against Cal without getting benched? Tough decisions loom.
“Yeah, I think you have to look at everything,” Rodriguez said when asked whether Plumlee did enough to be considered for the permanent starting job. “I think when you get to this point, you evaluate everyone all the time. That’s what you do in any program. This idea of having someone locked into a position. Yeah, maybe Tua (Tagoviola) and the wideouts Alabama has. But they go compete every time they are out there. That’s what Coach Luke is trying to establish with our guys. Matt did that before he got hurt.
“It will be good to have some competition and we will see how the week goes.”
Ole Miss needs to use Plumlee’s athleticism and quickness. But what does that role look like and how does that shorten Corral’s leash, if at all?
2. Balancing patience with results
The overarching theme surrounding this team riding into the season was how young the Rebels are. That was on full display on Saturday. A true freshman accounted for every Ole Miss touchdown. A freshman touched the football on every offensive snap.
As previously mentioned, Ole Miss lacks a downfield threat at receiver. Braylon Sanders has been hampered with a hamstring injury and hasn’t been a factor this season. Plumlee hit Mingo three times, one was a touchdown and another was in an one-on-one match up in which Mingo made a nice play. It appears things are starting to click for Mingo.
“It was good to see Plumlee and [Jonathan] Mingo connect a couple of times,” Luke said. “I thought Snoop and Jerrion and Scottie all ran the ball effectively. We’ve just got to continue to build on that.”
Four true freshmen caught passes on Saturday.
“We have a lot of talent,” Plumlee said. “But as I said earlier, if we can get the little things and work on the little things, we have the potential (as a freshman class) to be really special.”
Again, Ole Miss was outmatched across the board. It was never going to contend with Alabama — a program on a vastly different wavelength. But Luke dismissed any notion of finding solace in the positive things Ole Miss did. He spoke like a man with no time for moral victories.
“We came here to win,” Luke said. “There are no excuses. There are too many seniors in that locker room to say we are just going to build. We have a fan base that wants to win now. We have to continue to put our guys in a position to win and these freshmen will continue to get better.”
The 2019 season was always going to be struggle for Ole Miss. The offensive talent left over from the Freeze era departed after the 2018 season and a young crop of players filtered into the program as the Rebels returned to a full allotment of scholarships after absorbing NCAA-related penalties. But Luke is burdened with a fanbase that is growing both restless and increasingly apathetic. September was a litmus test and the Rebels failed the two toughest parts. The path to the postseason is deteriorating. Nothing that happened against Alabama was going to change that.
Saturday was a good start with regards to building offensively, but results are what will buy Luke time needed to build what he envisions. With each loss though, time melts away.
3. Secondary woes continue as defensive injuries mount:
Alabama’s receiving corps is the best in college football and is perhaps one of the best in the last decade. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Smith and Jaylen Waddle will be nearly impossible to contain for any secondary.
“They’re the best wide receivers I’ve gone against in college,” defensive coordinator Mike Macintyre said. “It reminded me of when I was with the Dallas Cowboys or the Jets. They’re really good and then the quarterback is extremely accurate.”
But an Ole Miss group that has struggled through five games was no match. MacIntyre played younger players a lot in this game. Deantre Prince, A.J. Finley and Jay Stanley all played significant snaps in the secondary. MacIntyre says this is no accident.
“I played them a lot on purpose,” MacIntyre said. “They’re really good athletes and going to be really good football players. They did some good things out there today. They made some freshman mistakes, but I thought they played really good at times.”
It is hard to indict the Ole Miss secondary for allowing 418 yards and six touchdowns to Tua Tagovailoa and the crop of receivers he throws to. But what will plague the Rebels going forward is if the secondary makes marginally talented quarterbacks — like Cal’s Chase Garbers, who set four career highs in a win in Oxford last Saturday— have overwhelming success in the passing game.
Jaylon Jones has yet to return to the form he flashed before his ACL injury last season. Sophomore Keidron Smith is dealing with a nagging shoulder issue and Myles Hartsfield has had a tough start to the 2019 campaign. Those factors, among other things, are why MacIntyre has little hesitation when it comes to playing the younger corners and safeties.
Vanderbilt comes to Oxford next week with Riley Neal as its signal caller. Neal has thrown for 829 yards this season with four touchdowns and two picks. How does he fare against this Rebels secondary? It will likely closely mirror the result of a game Ole Miss can ill-afford to lose.
PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics