Given the opponent Ole Miss played on Saturday, it is hard to gauge how much tangible improvement the defense has made after a turbulent couple of weeks. But in the Rebels’ 38-17 victory over Kent State, a struggling defensive unit received a confidence boost, if nothing else.
The defense sacked Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett seven times — all in the first half — and held an opposing offense to under 400 yards for the first time this season. The Kent State offensive line was in disarray for the entirety of the afternoon.
“There were a lot of negative plays and a lot of activity in their backfield,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “That is what we need to create.”
As the Ole Miss offense sputtered to a seven point total in the opening half, the defense held the Golden Flashes to seven points as well. In a slog of a game that saw two different weather delays, the defense forced a pair of turnovers and held Kent State to under five yards per play. Charles Wiley was credited with 2.5 of Ole Miss’ seven sacks and totaled five tackles. He seemingly gave the defense a spark early on in a game lacking energy in more ways than one.
“I think the defense fed off of it,” McGriff said. “It was good to see Chuck in there give us some good, productive and meaningful plays. We are going to expect that from him going forward, but it was good to see him get inside and play the three technique a little bit and get penetration. He used his skillset and that is what it is all about.”
Wiley is a sophomore defensive end that stood out on a defensive line that lacks playmakers since the departures of Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes. With Josiah Coatney and Benito Jones banged up, the Rebels played some smaller players on the defensive line like Wiley and Markel Winters out of necessity. But they were quicker and more athletic as a result and it resulted in the unit’s best game of the 2018 season
An early kickoff, a sparsely filled stadium and bad weather made for a tough day to play football. But for a defense that has taken its lumps and received its share of deserved criticism, the unit performed better and didn’t play down to its environment.
“I was happy to see them have some success so we can build off of it,” Matt Luke said. “I am proud of that.”
Ole Miss substituted a lot of players in this game — 22 different guys had tackles. Josh Clarke drew the start at linebacker next to Mohamed Sanogo before leaving the game with a foot injury. This unit certainly still has its limitations with regards to a lack of talent and depth. And yes, Kent State had some self inflicted mistakes and missed some opportunities. But after a brutal two weeks, one can’t help but think having some success — even against an outmatched opponent — will help with confidence.
“We got better this week,” senior safety Zedrick Woods said. “We brought our own energy.”
Woods led the team in tackles with seven and picked off Barrett in the third quarter that eventually helped Ole Miss distance itself on the scoreboard. Kent State gained 264 yards in the first half compared to just 126 in the second half. Far tougher challenges lie ahead for this defense that has struggled mightily through the first month of the season. But on this day, they helped lift the offense through a sluggish first half and received a confidence boost by simply seeing a bit of success on the field.
“We’re certainly going to focus on the positive,” McGriff said. “It is important to go out and play well. When you train every day and go out and come up short, it is just good to play well. It’s good to see the guys go out and have fun. The bottom line is when you play that fast and have that much energy you can build off of it.”
— Josh Clarke was seen on the sideline in a walking boot after eating the game with an ankle injury. His status going forward is not yet known
— Senior corner Ken Webster did not play in this game due to a nagging hamstring injury that has hampered him since fall camp. McGriff and Luke sounded optimistic Webster will be able to play next week at LSU, but did not yet know for sure.