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How Does Ole Miss Improve on Recent Red Zone Woes?

Bye weeks offer teams a break in the physical and mental grind of a major college football season. It’s brief opportunity for self-evaluation before moving onto the next opponent.

The majority of Ole Miss’ most pressing issues as a football team will not be solved in a 13-day period between games. More defensive talent isn’t walking through the door and aside from getting C.J. Miller back in the secondary and a healthier Victor Evans, reinforcements aren’t coming. Miller and Evans will certainly help patch the team’s rapidly deteriorating depth. Miller’s presence will allow the team to be more flexible with how it uses the versatile Myles Hartsfield and Evans will add to the depth on the edge with Markel Winters out for a couple more weeks, but those two are not going to dramatically change the results the Rebels will get on defense.

What Ole Miss can attempt to fix in the bye week that will help it in the final four games of the season is precisely what harmed it in the loss to Auburn: Red zone efficiency. Ole Miss went 4-for-4 in the red zone, but that doesn’t at all tell the story. The Rebels kicked three field goals and scored one inconsequential touchdown in the final minutes of the game.

Seven of Ole Miss’ 12 drives ventured inside of the Auburn 40 yard line — not counting the meaningless final drive of the game where the game ended when Ole Miss was at the Tiger 24-yard line. Ole Miss kicked field goals on three of those drives and came away with no points on three of those.

The staff echoed these concerns after the game, acknowledging that it cost them dearly.

“A couple penalties, numerous drops and the inability to run the ball at times against a decent box,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “We had a couple of poor decisions in terms of where to throw the ball.”

Longo’s often says his offense is about chasing space or finding grass as it pertains to both the running game and vertical passing game. When space gets limited down near the goal line, that premise becomes harder. An offense that relies so much on occupying space is suddenly crammed into a small portion of grass. How does Ole Miss improve on this?

“When you play against defenses that are really good, it gets tough down there,” head coach Matt Luke said.”It gets constricted, they’re going to bring zero pressure and we have to win some one-on-ones. I think there’s a lot of things that you have to look at, but we have to make sure we’re putting our players in the best position to be successful. We do have some guys that can win some one-on-ones, and we have to give those guys a chance when we get down there.”

Some of it is decision making, as Longo alluded to. The offense hinges heavily on run-pass options, putting pressure on the quarterback to sometimes choose between three and four decisions in a split second. It becomes even harder in a clogged red zone. Jordan Ta’amu missed a wide open A.J. Brown on a slant route in the slot, instead electing to hand the ball off (swing pass that counts as a rush) to Scottie Phillips for no gain. Another unproductive run and a sack followed, prompting a field goal attempt. The decision that may seem minute in the moment, cost the team four points.

“I think Jordan has his share of plays he would like to have back,” Longo said. “I am not trying to deflect the blame. At the end of the day it is my responsibility. I am not steering it one way or another. It is a collective unit issue. Jordan has some plays he is responsible for. He missed a slant off of a swing throw Saturday he could’ve made that would’ve been productive for us. But we need to play smarter, tighter and more aggressive football in the red zone.”

Longo cited a blitz they had not seen before from Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele in one instance. Auburn also dialed up a Cover Zero blitz on a couple of occasions — essentially a man-to-man shell with no defenders over the top and the linebackers blitzing. It puts stress on the offensive line in pass blocking and flustered the Ole Miss offense. It also puts pressure on the Auburn secondary to guard the plethora of options the Rebels have at receiver. What would seem like an advantage for Ole Miss with the one-on-one coverage on the perimeter instead worked in Auburn’s favor. Longo admitted team did not handle that well.

Ole Miss has not run the ball as effectively in the red zone as it has in other parts of the field. Part of that is a crowded box. Some of that is trying to prepare for and then combat a blitz and getting the football out of the backfield quickly. Being able to run the football more effectively in a crowded space in the red zone would help some of their struggles.

“We’re also going to get our guys in a better position to run the football more effectively down in the red zone,” Longo said.

Ole Miss ranks 12th in the country in red zone efficiency with a .939 scoring percentage, but has 20 touchdowns and 11 field goal attempts in 33 total red zone trips. The Rebels struggled with red zone efficiency early in the season, but had been better of late leading into the Auburn game. With as many issues as this team has that appear to be unsolvable in the short term, this is certainly something it can improve on during the bye week.

“We are going to focus in this week on getting better ourselves,” Longo said. “We will address the red zone issues, the physicality in the run game. We are going to address handling cover zero. We will address one-on-one matchups and maybe make different calls in those situations that will help make us more successful the next time they get down there.”

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