The result and events that led to it were largely the same for an Ole Miss team that has lost four games in a row after a 36-29 overtime defeat to Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday night.
The Rebels have been competitive in most of the games they’ve played this season and given themselves countless, real and tangible chances to win games, but have been unable to get to the finish line.
Why? That is a question that requires some unpacking. It’s a myriad of dysfunction comprised of factors both significant and minute.
Ole Miss is bad in the red zone. This night was no different. The Rebels jumped out to a 13-0 lead that could’ve easily been 21 points. It’s surpassed a trend at this point and has become who they are as an offense. The Rebels had seven red zone trips, kicked five field goals, scored one touchdown and turned it over one time.
“I thought that was the story of the game in my mind,” head coach Matt Luke said. “If any one of those field goals are touchdowns we win the football game. I think the ball is going to the right spot, we just have to make the plays when they are there and score touchdowns in the red zone.”
Ole Miss’ lone red zone touchdown came on a nine-yard screen pass to Damarkus Lodge. The Rebels got a playmaker the football quickly in space on the perimeter and it worked. The team was missing Scottie Phillips, who was unable to play with a sprained ankle. Freshman Isaiah Woullard had 103 yards on 16 touches. He was serviceable, but Phillips gives the team an element of explosion that Woullard does not. But this is who Ole Miss is at this point. Phil Longo’s offense is predicated on chasing space. When that space condenses, the Rebels don’t adapt.
“Anytime we are not having the success in a certain area we reevaluate it,” Longo said. “I thought our staff all felt confident in our plan this week. It wasn’t enough.”
Ole Miss is also undisciplined. In the second quarter, the Rebels led 13-3. Vanderbilt blocked a punt for a safety. Ole Miss proceeded to commit four penalties in the form of an offsides, two pass interferences and a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff. It aided in a scuffling Vanderbilt offense in putting the ball in the end zone for the first time in the game. Ole Miss worked to build a multi-score lead and it was reduced to a single point in a matter of three minutes.
Ole Miss also lacks depth. A short-handed defense started the game by forcing three straight punts. Fatigue eventually set in and the unit succumbed to Vanderbilt’s slow, methodical offensive attack. The former and latter often go hand-in-hand. Fatigue often brings frustration and mental lapses. It’s part of what leads to the undisciplined play. Make no mistake about it: This struggling defense allowed under 400 yards of offense and gave Ole Miss ample opportunities to seize control of the game, but the offense didn’t hold up its end for a second consecutive week.
“Guys are playing with great effort,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “To come up short, that is what is the most frustrating part.”
A lot of those guys are banged up, but they come in with the right attitude and they are playing their butt off. They are playing hard. We as coaches have to figure out how to keep them in position to win ball games.”
Lastly, Ole Miss has had some poor luck. The defense has been ravaged by injuries. Scottie Phillips was out on offense and Dawson Knox missed a half. Perhaps the most glaring instance of misfortune was A.J. Brown’s catch in the end zone in overtime that was ruled an incompletion upon review. Brown leapt over a Vanderbilt defender on third down and six. He appeared to come down with the football, but the ball squired out and touched the ground after Brown hit the ground. He got both feet in and fell to the ground, but by the letter of the rule did not survive the collision with the ground with the football.
“I had two feet in, two feet down, knee down,” Brown said. “I felt like I had control of it. Two feet down, knee down, still had control of it, tucked it and brought it back out. How much more control do you need?”
“It looked like he had possession and he was down and then he was knocked out,” Luke said.
All of these things intertwined have resulted in quite a few stinging defeats for an Ole Miss team that has five days to prepare for its final game of the 2018 season against Mississippi State. Again, it’s factors both significant and seemingly minute that eventually weigh enough to derail this team from its already narrow path to victory.
This core has endured massive amounts of adversity over the last two years both on and off of the field. It will need to pick itself up back off the mat one more time to avoid losing five straight games to end the season.
“They have no choice,” Luke said. “This is a huge game. They have to be ready. This team deserves to go out with a win with all they have gone through. They continue to fight. That is why I want them to feel some success and we have one more opportunity to do that.”