Ole Miss failed another test against a quality SEC defense on Saturday in a 31-16 loss to Auburn, a result that is becoming a reoccurring issue for a team that relies heavily on its offense to mask the shortcomings of its defense.
On this day, the opposite was largely true. The defense played well enough — particularly in the first half — and gave the offense ample opportunities to take control of the game. It was unable to dos so.
“I thought the story of the game was in the red zone,” head coach Matt Luke said. “When we get into the red zone, we have to find a way to score touchdowns.”
The underwhelming production against what can be classified as “good” defenses is developing into a theme for this offense The Rebels amassed just seven points and 248 yards of total offense against Alabama, only 328 and 16 points at LSU and then the 16-point performance against Auburn on this day. The Rebels moved the ball efficiently in the space leading up to the red zone, tallying 447 yards of total offense. But stalled when the field shrank. The team settled for three field goal attempts in the first half, making two of them and did not score a touchdown as it trailed 10-6 at the break.
The Tigers amanhandled Ole Miss up front, which was part of the red zone struggles. Auburn sacked Jordan Ta’amu five times and tamed what has at times been an effective downhill running game for the Rebels. Ole Miss rushed for just 123 on 39 attempts, clocking in at 3.2 yards per carry. Really for the first time all season, a veteran offensive line looked overwhelmed. The Tigers have a talented front seven and it proved to be Ole Miss’ demise in this game.
“They’re big, physical and fast off of the line,” Ta’amu said. “They brought a lot of pressure. Most of it was on my part. I have to protect myself and we have to score down in the red zone.”
The team failed to reach the end zone until an A.J. Brown 12-yard touchdown reception with two minutes to go in the game. That was its only touchdown of the game and its most productive red zone trip.
“I felt like Auburn didn’t change anything almost all the way down until about the 10-yard line,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “Our base down and open-field game plan stayed pretty much the same until about the 10 yard line. But we got in that 20-30 yard range today and didn’t make some plays. That left some points on the field, points we needed to win this ball game.”
Longo often says this offense is about chasing space or chasing grass. When that space becomes limited in the red zone, the offense struggles to function fluidly. Before Longo spoke with the media after the game, he said he went back and looked at some of the film. He got about halfway through the first quarter and formulated an initial diagnosis.
“There are no excuses,” Longo said. “We had some poor execution in the red zone or just out of the red zone that stalled some drives. Those are things that we have to get done to get a good start. We felt like we needed a good start against Auburn and settling for the field goals is not what we wanted to do.”
Longo is correct. The Rebels needed a quick start against an Auburn team whose mental state was assumed to be fragile after a couple of weeks of turbulence on and off the field. The Rebels got a field goal blocked on the opening drive and Auburn parlayed that into a touchdown.
Some of the struggles were self-inflicted. Ole Miss had a couple of key drops, a false start and took a sack that pushed them out of field goal range in one instance. Whether it wants to admit it or not, but Ole Miss missed the red zone presence D.K. Metcalf too. The Rebels came into the game ranked first in the SEC in red zone offense with 27 scores in 29 tries. Ole Miss has scored 19 touchdowns and settled for field goal attempts 10 times in the red zone.
“Red zone has been good for us this year,” Longo said. “We had some issues early on the season but addressed them.”
The defense played above its head as long as it could and gave Ole Miss a chance. They should get some credit for that. Auburn totaled just 10 points and 186 yards in the first half. It forced three punts and gave the offense plenty of size control, but when that didn’t happen the under-manned defense eventually succumbed to Auburn’s ground game in what led to a 228 yard third quarter that saw the Tigers take over the football game.
“I felt our defense played well in the first half and kept us in it,” Luke said. “Again, I thought the story was the red zone. We have to find a way to get it in. It is tough against good defenses, but we have to find a way to get it in. That is our job as coaches.”