Ole Miss is 3-1, precisely where most thought it would be sitting a month into the season contingent on a successful result in the season opener against Texas Tech.
The path to 3-1 hasn’t been pretty. The defensive shortcomings have glared and a high-powered offense survived a six quarter stretch of stagnant production. Nevertheless, the Rebels will head to Baton Rouge this weekend for an 8:15 P.M. kickoff against LSU. It feels like a crucial game for the team’s psyche after a turbulent two weeks as it heads into the teeth of its SEC schedule.
“We’re happy to be 3-1 and are looking to build off the positives from the last game, particularly defensively,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Excited about the opportunity to go play another top five team on the road at night. It will be a very challenging atmosphere, but we are excited for the challenge. This is why you play in the SEC.”
— A.J. Brown tweaked a hamstring in Saturday’s win over Kent State. Luke said the prognosis is good and described the injury as minor. He feels confident Brown will be full go this weekend.
— The Rebels may get Ken Webster back this week. The senior corner has been dealing with a hamstring injury that has hampered him since fall camp. A healthy Webster would be an appreciated boost for a secondary whose depth is rapidly dwindling with the losses of Jaylon Jones and Montrell Custis. Luke said Webster will hopefully get back to “full speed” this week with the hopes of him contributing on Saturday night in some capacity.
— Benito Jones has been banged up, but Luke thinks he will be able to play against LSU.
— Jordan Ta’amu has dealt with soreness in both of his shoulders the last two weeks, including playing through a right shoulder sprain against Kent State. Luke said Ta’amu did not throw on Sunday, giving the quarterback two full days off with the regular Monday off day before returning to practice on Tuesday. Luke does not anticipate it hindering Ta’amu going forward.
Another test for Ole Miss offense:
The Ole Miss offense was not good against Alabama by any metric. The unit mustered just seven points and did not put a productive drive together for the entirety of the game. Alabama boasts the best defense in college football and LSU will not be on the same level, but is still a tough and athletic defense that will force Ole Miss to execute well in all facets in order to move the football.
The LSU secondary will pose a similar challenge for an Ole Miss receiving corps that has grown accustomed to winning matchups because of athletic superiority. This group struggled against the Alabama secondary and will need to be sharper to have success in the passing game.
“They are are good up front and really every position,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “This is a defense that is really every bit as talented as Alabama. They are very different schematically. This game will be about matching athleticism and executing against this scheme as opposed to Alabama’s scheme. After playing a high-level defense like Alabama, we came out of that game knowing it is going to be more about the little things and executing.”
Opposing quarterbacks are completing 55 percent of their passes against the LSU secondary and the Tigers have given up six passing touchdowns and 976 total yards through the air in four games. The group ranks third in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing just over 91 yards per game. Longo’s offense hinges on an efficient, downhill running game to compliment the plethora of matchup advantages it tries to create on the perimeter.
“We came out of camp feeling a lot better about our ability to run the football, which is what we always want to do in this system,” Longo said. “But it still comes down to what the defense gives us.”
Rebels head to Death Valley relying on young defensive contributors:
Ole Miss’ defensive shortcomings have been well-chronicled through the first four weeks of the season. The group is relying on a two true freshmen linebackers in Jacquez Jones and Kevontae’ Ruggs at linebacker and Keidron Smith in the secondary. Naturally, there have been growing pains.
“It is always a challenge coaching when you have young guys out there,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “They are going to make mistakes and you try to coach them through the mistakes. It is growing pains. You are on a big stage. You are in the SEC West. They do a good job of getting up and playing the next play.”
LSU’s offense has been just good enough through four games this season, but it runs the football efficiently and quarterback Joe Borrow is enough of a threat with regards to completing passes down field to keep defenses honest. Stopping the run has been an issue for the Rebels this season. The defense ranks last in the SEC in both passing and rushing defense. Neutralizing the LSU running game has been something Ole Miss has been unable to do in the last two years in this game and will be paramount to it having a chance on Saturday night. The Rebels will rely on a couple of young linebackers to do so in Ruggs and Jones.
“Ruggs is very active and Jacquez has a nose for the football,” Luke said. “Jacquez is a little more instinctive player. You just want to keep seeing them get better. Every once in a while they’ll flash and be really good, then the next play won’t be what you think. You want to bring them along and the only way to do that is through playing and getting experience. They are getting better.”
— Ole Miss and Louisiana-Monroes has been slated for a 3 P.M. kickoff.