The blame for Ole Miss’ 15-10 loss to Memphis on Saturday can be dispersed widely, but the Rebels defense should shirk the bulk of it.
A unit that returned most of its personnel from one of the worst defenses in college football in 2018, flashed improvement on Saturday. The Tigers offense is not of the same caliber the Ole Miss defense will face when SEC play begins, but it is no doormat either. The Rebels held the Memphis to 364 yards of total offense, a drastic enhancement from virtually any game a season ago. The defense did not allow a point in the second half, held Memphis to 3.4 yards per rush and contained quarterback Brady White to a pedestrian performance. White was 23-of-31 for 172 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Simply put, a defense that had potential to be the reason Ole Miss lost the game, gave it every opportunity to win it. The offense did not deliver.
“The team I watched on film last year wouldn’t have kept battling like they did today,” defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre said. “I thought the kids played extremely hard.”
MacIntyre’s men were on the field a lot. Memphis dominated time of possession. The Tigers ran 82 plays to the Rebels 52 and possessed the football for over 38 minutes, a statistic that has less to do with the performance of the Tigers offense and more to do with the putrid one the Ole Miss offense cobbled together.
Fatigue showed toward the end of the game. The defense strung together numerous stops, but wasn’t able to muster one more in the fourth quarter as Memphis salted away the final 6:21 on the clock after a safety gave the Tigers the football with a five-point lead. Ole Miss forced Memphis into a fourth-and-two scenario at the Tiger own 46. Matt Luke called timeout to regroup. Mike Norvell called a shovel pass that the Rebels nearly thwarted at the line of scrimmage, but running back Kenny Gainwell escaped one tackle and lunged forward for a first down.
“We were looking for a quarterback sneak like they had done on the other fourth down,” Benito Jones said. “We thought wrong.”
Memphis earned two more first down and melted the remaining two minutes and change.
“I thought we stuffed it, but they barely got it,” MacIntyre said with a grimace. Even in a stinging defeat, the first-year defensive coordinator could sense his once embattled group gaining confidence. MacIntyre was largely pleased with the performance, as was his boss.
“There were some bright spots for sure,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Our defense kept us in it for the whole game. They looked like a much-improved group. We have a ton of growing up to do offensively.”
Junior college transfer linebacker Lakia Henry led tied for the team lead in tackles with seven. Josiah Coatney had seven tackles and a sack. Ryder Anderson had six tackles and a half a sack. Ole Miss didn’t generate much of a pass rush, but that was mostly a byproduct of what Memphis was doing. The Tigers didn’t let White drop back and throw the ball down the field. White distributed the ball to his wide receivers in space on the perimeter. The ball left his hand quickly. The Rebels fared well against the strategy. Running back Patrick Taylor had 27 carries for 128 yards and a score. Ole Miss held him in check mostly, but struggled the most when Memphis handed Taylor the ball in its two-tight end sets.
“We are big and powerful,” MacIntyre said. “When we went nickel early, they ran the ball. We stayed in a base 3-4 and it helped us a lot on third downs. The outside linebackers can fly around. I thought we did well in space. We are always going to be worried about teams attacking us in space, but we did well. It is difficult for the receivers to block those bigger guys.”
The first of the two touchdowns the defense allowed came with the help of two personal fouls. The Rebels forced two fourth downs on Memphis’ 13-play, 74-yard drive. Junior defensive end Sam Williams committed two personal fouls that extended the drive. The first was a facemask and the second was a questionable roughing the passer call. MacIntyre hopes Williams, a junior college transfer playing in his Division-I game, will learn from it.
The second touchdown came on a short field after a three-and-out from the Ole Miss offense. Memphis started at the Rebels 37 and took advantage with six points. The Tigers didn’t score again.
A year ago, Ole Miss lost games because of its horrific defense. If the Rebels entered the fourth quarter of a game with just three points, they were likely being blown out. Today, Ole Miss entered the fourth quarter with three points and was still very much in the game. The defense was the sole reason the Rebels were in the game for four quarters, rather than being the reason they didn’t have a chance, like so many times in the last three seasons.
“We have some things to sure up that Arkansas will attack,” MacIntyre said. “But I hope they are gaining confidence. I hope they realize what we are doing. I hope they see the techniques we are teaching them and why attention to detail is so important.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics