HOUSTON — Ole Miss’ success this season will likely mirror the competence of its defense to some degree. The Rebels boast an explosive offense with an abundance of weapons on the perimeter that make them dynamic in the vertical passing game. Ole Miss is going to score points, this much we know. But will its defense give it a chance to win on a week-to-week basis?
In Saturday’s 47-27 win over Texas Tech, the answer was yes. It was not a perfect performance by any means. The Red Raiders compiled 486 yards of total offense, 164 of that on the ground. But the defense got stops in timely situations and bent a number of times without shattering.
Ole Miss’ lone turnover came in the third quarter on a Damarkus Lodge fumble. The score was 37-27 and the Red Raiders had a golden opportunity to make it a one-score game with good field position. The Rebel defense forced a turnover on downs. Jordan Ta’amu threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown four plays later to seemingly break Texas Tech spirits.
“I was proud of them bowing their necks especially on those two fourth downs late,” head coach Matt Luke said. “There was a couple times we got gassed there, especially in the second half. So we really got to work on trying to get some guys in there staying fresh.”
It was these kind of stops that the Ole Miss defense got enough to win the game. There were adverse situations early. Texas Tech marched 90 yards down the field on their first drive. Freshman linebacker Kevontae’ Ruggs exited the game with a head injury in the shortly after. Ole Miss survived it. Giving up 486 yards isn’t ideal, but one could make the argument 164 yards on the ground is a fairly sizable improvement from last season.
“It gives you confidence when you get a big stop,” Sanogo said. “The whole team gets fired up. The offense comes and pats you on the back. It gets you ready to go out there next time.”
Ole Miss played a lot of guys in this game, partially by choice and partially out of necessity. When Ruggs went down Jacquez Jones came in and played some middle linebacker with Sanogo sliding to the outside.
“We had a plan B in our back pocket and we executed it,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said.
Texas Tech quarterback McClane Carter left the game with an injury in the first quarter and the Rebels saw a different look when true freshman Alan Bowman took over. It wasn’t always pretty. Texas Tech gashed the defense at times, particularly on the ground early. But the Red Raiders averaged 2.37 yards per carry on the day and Ole Miss got two stops in the red zone and held to a field goal twice.
“The first thing I felt great about was not thinking how many times the running back ran down the field wide open,” McGriff said. “Right now, without looking at the video I am pleased with how he we stopped the run. We can improve on that, but the explosive plays weren’t there today.”
Texas Tech was 0-for-3 on third down. The Red Raider quarterbacks completed under 60 percent of their passes. Zedrick Woods led the team in tackles with nine. Montrell Custis had seven tackles and played a fine game. Custis was one of the more under-the-radar stories in fall camp. He quietly performed well and crept up the depth chart.
“I think it’s the way he’s prepared,” Luke said. “Everyone saw in the video he gave up his number, just being unselfish in the way he’s prepared. I’ve seen him grow up a lot off the field, and I think it’s paying big dividends for him on the field. I think it’s a credit to the way he’s prepared.”
This defense is well aware of how badly it struggled last year, particularly against the run. Players spoke often throughout the offseason about changing the narrative. It looked like much of the same when Texas Tech moved the ball at will on the first drive, but the defense settled in and played a pretty good game after that. Perhaps, it is a sign of maturity.
“I told the guys to calm down,” McGriff said. “The minute you give up one early in the game like that, you need to get them calm. I told them about the mistakes they made and showed them some of the adjustments we needed to make before we go back out on the grass the next time.”
Texas Tech is far from the most formidable offensive foe the Rebels will face this year. Ole Miss young and inexperienced at linebacker. The defense has its limitations. But on this day, they were good enough and it led to a win.