COLLEG STATION, TEXAS — Squandered opportunities have been the story for this Ole Miss team in recent weeks as it barrels toward the end of its season with a stretch of three games in 19 days. The latest opportunity slipped away a 38-24 defeat to Texas A&M at Kyle Field.
An undermanned defense kept the Rebels within striking distance for as long as it could, but the offense wasn’t able to move the football consistently enough to make good on some of the opportunities the defense provided it, and the defense eventually succumbed to the Aggies’ offensea, allowing 502 yards and 38 points.
“I thought the defense played their guts out,” head coach Matt Luke said. “They gave us an opportunity to win. Credit to Texas A&M. They controlled the second half, especially the third quarter in particular.”
Ole Miss was 1-for-11 on first down in this game and did not have a third down conversion until over halfway into the fourth quarter. Scottie Phillips went down in the first quarter with an ankle injury and true freshman Isaiah Woullard had sporadic success against the best run defense in the Southeastern Conference, but the Rebels only ran the ball for 67 yards as a team. Luke admitted that Jordan Ta’amu was a bit limited in what he could do running the football, still dealing with the lingering effects of an ankle injury suffered in the loss to South Carolina last week.
“When I was trying to run, I felt it,” Ta’amu said. “It has gotten better since last week. I don’t think it limited me, I just took what they gave me. If they gave me the box, I ran it. It did play a little factor, but I am not going to put the blame on that.”
The blame or diagnosis of the cause for this loss can be found in the team’s lackluster performance on third down. The inability to put drives together and stay on the field put the Ole Miss defense on the field for 37 minutes in this game. The Rebels possessed the ball for just 22 minutes, even less time if you factor in two late drives that didn’t have much consequence.
“We have to perform better on third down,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “That kept us from having some opportunities. We have to finish some drives. We had a turnover, a penalty and a missed field goal in the red zone. That continues to plague us.”
Ta’amu finished the game 22-of-35 for 373 yards and a touchdown. The passing game was the Rebels’ primary source of offense, but it wasn’t consistent enough to convert on third down and the inability to run the football with consistent success cost the team in the red zone. Ole Miss was 2-of-4 in the red zone with two field goals, a missed field goal and a Ta’amu fumble at the end of the first half when the Rebels were on the precipice of taking a two score lead.
“We have to execute,” receiver Damarkus Lodge said. “We have to key in on the little things and have laser focus. I think we got a little ahead of ourselves.”
There are other things to point to that contributed to the loss. Luke Logan missed a 22-yard, potentially game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter. Ta’amu’s fumble came with the Rebels driving midway through the second quarter with a chance to go up two scores. A Dawson Knox targeting penalty negated an A.J. Brown reception over the middle that would’ve been the team’s first third down conversion of the game in the third quarter. Texas A&M took a 24-21 lead on the ensuing drive after an Ole Miss punt.
It was a number of different things, most of them rooted in offensive dysfunction.
“They made the plays and we didn’t,” Luke said. “Give those guys credit.”
This team is what it is at this point. It’s undermanned on defense, which puts great pressure on its offense to score a lot of points because of it. Ole Miss’ recipe for winning is for the defense to get enough stops to keep the game close and the offense to capitalize on them. The former happened while the latter did not. Texas A&M punted four times and the defense scored a touchdown and forced two turnovers. The offense didn’t reach the end zone in the second half.
The third quarter is where it began to unravel. Ole Miss had 31 yards of offense and just one first down. The Aggies had 174 and eight first downs. This team’s margin for error is too thin to overcome that. If not for a 95 scoop-and-score by Zedrick Woods on the Aggies’ opening drive, Texas A&M would’ve been in the driver’s seat heading into the fourth.
“They controlled the third quarter,” Luke said. “In the second half, we were a little out of sync.”
On the surface, It’s hard to make an argument that the defense did its job when allows 500 yards and 38 points. But it did. There’s a ceiling for this Ole Miss defense with the injuries and other shortcomings it has. It reached it and played well enough to win, the offense didn’t hold up its end. The result was another loss as Ole Miss now sits at 5-5 (1-5) with Vanderbilt and Mississippi State left.
“They’re playing hard and giving all they got,” Luke said. “I think they did wear down late. That third quarter, they were on the field pretty much the whole quarter.”
Postgame Live: Ole Miss loses to Texas A&M 38-24 https://t.co/R7AWknh7pd
— SportsTalk Mississippi (@SportsTalkMiss) November 10, 2018