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Loss to South Carolina Highlights Small Margin of Error For Ole Miss

Ole Miss’ football team, as currently constructed, has a narrow path to follow to win football games this season. Because of its talent-deficient, shorthanded defense, the offense must score points in bunches with the hope the defense is able to string together a couple of stops to create separation.

The Rebels appeared to be heading down that path towards victory for much of this game, but deviated late and it proved to be fatal in the 48-44 loss to South Carolina.
A somber Matt Luke addressed the media and faced the same questions he’s been facing for nine weeks. What was his assessment of a struggling defense? How can the offense move the ball at will at times and then suddenly sputter so violently?

“It makes it tough when you know the kids left it all on the field,” Luke said. “They battled their guts out, but we didn’t make the plays we needed to make. There will be a thousand different things we could point to over the course of the game, but they made the plays they needed to make and we didn’t.”

In some ways, Luke’s assessment is correct. It isn’t an effort issue. It’s an undisciplined defense devoid of talent and has been ravaged by injuries, which puts immense pressure on the offense to score — and by score, I mean score touchdowns — every time it touches the football. It’s an arduous path to victory, but is the only one available to this team as constructed.

You saw Ole Miss complete the path in the Arkansas game. The defense held the Razorbacks to field goals in the second half while the Ole Miss offense raced down the field and scored touchdowns to crawl back into the football game and win it late. You saw Ole Miss fail in the loss to Auburn where the offense kicked field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone, and the defense treaded water for as long as it could but eventually succumbed to a 277 yard third quarter in a multi-score loss.

Ole Miss appeared to be headed down this narrow and winding path in this game. The offense put up 400 yards in the first half and played to a 27-27 tie. The Gamecocks punted once and put up 316 yards of their own — and likely would’ve had more if Deebo Samuel hadn’t returned the opening kick for a touchdown.

“You aren’t going to win games in the SEC if you don’t make tackles and stop the vertical ball,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “You have to keep the ball in front of you. Teams are just too good to give up those plays and expect to win the game.”

The Rebels had a chance for a two-for-one scoring opportunity after getting into the end zone on the final drive of the half and then getting the football first to begin the second half. The offense settled for a field goal in the red zone to go up 30-27 and South Carolina immediately answered with a touchdown to retake the lead at 34-30. In nine red zone possessions, Ole Miss had three field goals, five touchdowns and a turnover.

“We know we settled for a couple of field goals,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “They made a couple of good plays too. That is football. I thought our plan was better. I thought our guys did a good job after the first quarter. We wanted to be more physical and run the football run the football down there. We wanted to be better. That was a big reason why we got in on a number of those touchdowns in the second and third quarter.”

The defense got back-to-back stops in the form of a punt and a turnover on downs in which they stuffed the Gamecocks on a fullback dive. The offense parlayed those into two touchdown drives and the Rebels had a 44-34 lead in the fourth quarter.

The game was following the blueprint to a tee.

But then there was a mechanical malfunction. The offense sputtered in the fourth quarter. Its final four drives were: punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs. Ole Miss managed 18 yards of offense in the fourth quarter after racking up 590 in the first 45 minutes of the game.

“We had so much success during the game and the fourth quarter put us in a slightly different situation,” Longo said. “I thought they did a good job in man coverage and made some plays. That was really the difference.”

It put pressure on the shorthanded defense and they eventually caved. The Rebels mistakenly kicked to Samuel again, who returned it into Ole Miss territory and made a 47 yard touchdown drive a bit easier. It was suddenly 44-41.

The Ole Miss offense punted again, part of it induced by Jordan Ta’amu going out with an ankle injury and Matt Corral having to come off the bench. South Carolina parlayed the punt into a touchdown to take the lead. Mon Donson broke a 69 yard rush to set up the go ahead score. It put him over the century mark rushing on the day after replacing Rico Dowdle, who was injured in the first half.

“One of our goals was to make sure we didn’t have a 100 yard rusher leave our stadium,” McGriff said. “After that explosive run, we didn’t meet that goal.”

To its credit, the defense gave Ta’amu — who returned to the game for the final two drives — and the offense a chance after a three-and-out gave the Gamecocks an opportunity to put the game on ice. Mohamed Sanogo sacked Jake Bentley on third and four when a first down would have effectively ended the game. It gave the offense over two minutes to march the ball 71 yards to win the game with one timeout. A Damarkus Lodge reception and a Ta’amu scramble got the team to midfield, but three consecutive incompletions brought the drive to a halt and ended the game.

“It’s just what Jordan chose,” Longo said of the two deep incompletions to end the game. “We had a quick hitter underneath to get the first down. We had an intermediate route and a deep one. That was the match up and that is where he went.”

The offense took a breath, struggling for four drives. It left the door open for South Carolina, who ran straight through it to the finish line.

Again, it is a narrow path for this team to win games. But it followed it all the way to the home stretch, but came up short. The slightest deviation wrecked its entire direction.

“They gave us a chance to win the football game,” Luke said. “We had the football with a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.”

This is a stinging defeat for this team and the disappointment was evident in after the game. To Luke’s credit, his teams never quit when the circumstances get dire. The turmoil-filled 2017 season is evidence enough of that.

Longo called this team a resilient group and thinks they will bounce back. He’s probably right. Ole Miss will give a good effort in its final three games, but that just may not be enough given the arduous and narrow path this team has to follow to win games.

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