Ole Miss’ 2018 football season will end on Thursday night. This much we know. The Rebels have lost four games in a row and the only Power Five teams they’ve beaten are Texas Tech and an Arkansas team headed towards a 2-10 season.
The final chapter of the Rebels’ season will certainly be an impactful one against the best defense on their schedule. Mississippi State ranks fourth in the country in total defense and is the second best scoring defense in college football. The Bulldog defensive line is arguably the best in the SEC and will provide a tough challenge for an Ole Miss offense that hopes to have running back Scottie Phillips back in some capacity on Thursday night. Luke said Phillips and wide receiver Braylon Sanders are listed as probable, while center Sean Rawlings and Damarkus Lodge will be limited in practice this week and will be a game time decisions.
How will this banged up Ole Miss offense combat the Bulldog defense that hasn’t yielded 30 points in a game this season?
“They have a bunch of older guys who have been in there and played,” Luke said. “They’re very good at getting off blocks. They do a good job of bringing pressure, a lot of 5-man pressure and constantly putting pressure on you. We have to do a really good job of handling the pressure and then applying some pressure of our own. If they’re going to pressure, we’ll bring some on the outside where they have to cover.”
Even if Rawlings is able to go, the Ole Miss offensive line — a unit that has been good all season — will have its hands full trying to pass protect against the Mississippi State pass rush. Jordan Ta’amu was sacked four times in the 2017 Egg Bowl and completed just 10-of-22 passing attempts. The Rebels would do well to get the ball out of Ta’amu’s hands quickly to A.J. Brown and Damarkus Lodge quickly on the perimeter.
Ole Miss scored one touchdown in seven red zone trips against Vanderbilt, an issue that has plagued the offense for two months. The Rebels rank last in the SEC in red zone touchdown percentage at just over 39 percent. It is tied for first nationally with Syracuse in red zone field goals with 20. Simply put: Ole Miss won’t win the game if it is kicking field goals in the red zone. The Bulldogs are allowing 2.9 points per red zone trip, the best mark in the FBS.
“What really dictates how we are going to attack them is what they are doing defensively now,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “I think we had some good match ups last week, we just didn’t catch a few. This week against Mississippi State, it is a different defense entirely. We have to take into account how good their defensive front is.”
The strength of the Bulldogs’ defense is undoubtedly the defensive front seven. Conversely, the weakest link of the defense by comparison is the secondary. Ole Miss beat Mississippi State last year largely because of explosive plays made by its wide receivers and will test the Bulldog secondary early and often again this year. The Bulldogs are allowing 165.3 passing yards per game this season, which is good for eighth best in the FBS.
“We have to find ways to attack them, find ways to score” Ta’amu said. “We have to drive down and score touchdowns.”
Running the ball will be a tall task for Ole Miss against State’s defensive line, but the Rebels will need to show some semblance of balance to be able to get more man coverage and to be able to exploit some of the mismatches on the perimeter they think they can create. Ole Miss did this well in last year’s win in Starkville. Jordan Wilkins had 110 yards on 14 carries with a pair of touchdowns. It opened things up on the outside for Brown and D.K. Metcalf, who both scored back-breaking touchdowns in the second half of that game. A healthy and effective Scottie Phillips will be crucial for the Rebels’ chances of having any success on offense, particularly in the red zone.
“We have to run the ball well enough to create some 1-on-1 matchups and then take advantage of those. Offensively, they do a good job or running the football we’re going to have to find a way to make them throw it to beat us and that will be our game plan.”