Ole Miss’ toughest test of 2018 season has arrived in week three and it comes in the form of Alabama — the defending national champions and the number one ranked team in the country with the most dynamic quarterback of the Nick Saban era leading the offense.
Sophomore signal caller Tua Tagovailoa exploded onto the scene in the second half of the 2017 national championship game, sparking a dormant offense into eruption in an overtime win over Georgia. Saban played coy most of the offseason, adamant that the dynamic between Tagovailoa and his predecessor, Jalen Hurts, was an open competition. To the shock of no one Tagovailoa has started the first two games and the Tide have dismantled Louisville and Arkansas State.
“The first thing is that we have to account for the quarterback in the running game,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “We will mix up our chase calls and our cue calls with regards to the zone read to make sure we have a hat on the quarterback every single time. They can score from any place on the field. The scheme will change a little bit with regards to who has their eyes on the quarterback.”
This daunting challenge comes after a brutal week for an Ole Miss defense that gave up 629 yards and 41 points to a Southern Illinois team that finished 4-7 a year ago. A lot must change in a short amount of time if the Rebels wish keep this game competitive. The coaching staff made it clear it wasn’t so much a schematic breakdown that lead to the Salukis moving the football up-and-down the field at will, but rather a lack of focus and discipline.
“We have to get them playing fast and with energy,” McGriff said. “That is our job as a staff and we didn’t get that done.”
Ole Miss came out okay on the injury front in Saturday’s win. Matt Luke said Damarkus Lodge and Kevontae’ Ruggs are both probable to play after missing last week’s game with a concussion. Tariqious Tisdale suffered an concussion and his status for the Alabama game is uncertain. The staff will know more on Tisdale’s status on Wednesday as he gets deeper into the concussion protocol. Linebackers Jacquez Jones and Detric-Bing Dukes should be okay to play after suffering minor injuries against Southern Illinois, according to Luke.
“We’ve got to move on pretty quickly with the number one team coming to Oxford,” Luke said. “I am excited about the challenge.”
On the offensive side of the football, Ole Miss looked dynamic yet again. Braylon Sanders drew a start and Lodge’s absence and had four catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. He has eight catches on the season and appears to have pretty good chemistry with Jordan Ta’amu so far this season.
“The fun part is to see the work ethic pay off and see Braylon take advantage of an opportunity,” Luke said. “Not only last game, but in the first game too. He is starting to be consistent and make the tough catches.”
Alabama will be a different beast for an Ole Miss offense that hasn’t really been challenged through the first two weeks. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 21 points through two games. Arkansas State moved the ball on the Alabama defense to a degree and accumulated nearly 400 yards of offense, but only scored once. Granted, the Crimson Tide’s first-team defense did not play anywhere close to a full game. Louisville tallied just 268 yards of offense in the season opener against Alabama.
“They do a phenomenal job of playing defense anywhere on the field,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “They are very good at what they do. They are well coached and they will be one of the toughest teams we see this year. When you get down into the red zone and down near that end of the field, the field gets smaller. That small of a field is a huge advantage for a defense. Against some of the better teams they have played, they have had a lot of success in the red zone.”
Kickoff on Saturday is slated for 6 P.M.