It was a tumultuous day for an Ole Miss defense that showed signs of progression in the second half of a season-opening win over Texas Tech. The Rebels allowed 629 yards to a Southern Illinois team that finished 4-7 a year ago, and surrendered 38 points and 386 yards in a first half in which the Salukis did not punt.
“Give them credit, they came out and played with energy in the first half,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “We came out, didn’t have our focus. We played flat. We had poor eye discipline and gave up a ton of plays.”
It was as lethargic as McGriff described. For a team known for running the football the majority of the time, Southern Illinois threw the ball on its first six plays from scrimmage, completed five passes and picked up all 56 yards through the air to go ahead 7-0. The Salukis scored a touchdown on five of their six first-half possessions. Three times they drove the ball 75 yards into the end zone in the first 30 minutes.
“We made one adjustment (at halftime),” McGriff said. “The other adjustment, I cannot really say on camera.”
From a schematic standpoint, Southern Illinois appeared to have the Rebels fooled badly on multiple occasions in the first half. Backs and receivers leaked out of the backfield into space regularly. It was the delayed routes in the flats or a back lingering up the middle of the field that hurt Ole Miss. Saluki Quarterback Sam Straub was 29-for-47 for 382 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. He was 19-for-25 in the first half and dumped the football to guys in space without a defender in sight.
“Bad eye discipline,” McGriff said. “They ran guys across formations. You have to have good eye discipline when you play against a team like SIU. We didn’t have that. When you don’t have it, then you are going to have guys running free amongst the defense. It didn’t surprise me. What surprised me is that we didn’t go out and play focused.”
It kept Ole Miss off balance and didn’t help them mask their achilles heel: stopping the run. The Salukis rushed the ball 45 times for 241 yards.
“I think it was a lack of focus with our eyes,” linebacker Mohamed Sanogo said. “We expected a lot more run than we got. Our eyes were off.”
Sanogo mentioned the team had a couple of communication breakdowns, particularly on some of their receivers and backs coming out of the offensive backfield. The Rebels were sitting run the majority of the time and the Salukis carved them up with delayed passing routes.
Eyes and fits are buzzwords the defense uses a lot when they struggle and there is certainly merit to those claims in terms of it relating to their struggles. But at the end of the day, the Rebels were pretty lackadaisical and were exposed for it against a far inferior opponent. Sanogo hinted they might not have given the Salukis the proper attention given that Alabama comes to Oxford in a week, but Southern Illinois certainly got their attention in the halftime locker room.
“We didn’t come out ready to play,” head coach Matt Luke said. “That is one me 100 percent.”
It’s an alarming sign for a defense that felt pretty good about itself after playing well in the second half against Texas Tech. The Crimson Tide come to town next Saturday with a physical running game and probably the most dynamic quarterback of the Saban era in Tua Tagovailoa.
“The biggest thing we have to cleanup is us,” McGriff said. “We have no opportunity to come out and play competitive against anybody if we don’t pay attention to the mistakes we are making and getting better. Then we will focus on the opponent.”
The team didn’t come out unscathed on the injury front either. Tariqious Tisdale got injured early in the second and linebackers Detric-Bing Dukes and Jacquez Jones suffered injuries. The Rebels deficiencies and depth issues at linebacker are well chronicled and injuries don’t help the cause. Luke did not yet know the severity of any of those injuries.
It was a collective step back for the Rebels on defense, but to their credit, the unit forced two turnovers for touchdowns in the second half. Vernon Dasher’s 88-yard pick six gave Ole Miss a two-score lead and felt like the turning point in the game. Victor Evans scooped and scored a fumble shortly after. The Salukis still gained over 240 yards from scrimmage in the second half but only managed three points to show for it.
A far more daunting challenge looms in seven days.
“Pleased with the energy and adjustments we made at halftime,” Luke said. “But we obviously need play much better than that if we expect to win. We have to get on tape and figure out what went wrong in the second half.”