TUSCALOOSA, ALA —The conditions were ripe for an implosion.
One would be hard-pressed to find more adverse conditions for true freshman John Rhys Plumlee to make his first SEC start: On the road, in Tuscaloosa inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, the home turf of the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Plumlee was tasked with solving a Nick Saban defense, the man responsible for manufacturing what is perhaps the grandest dynasty the sport has ever seen.
It would be difficult to fault Plumlee for wilting. Out-manned across the board and devoid of any significant playing experience, placing lofty expectations on the young man would be foolish.
“I was more excited than nervous,” Plumlee said. “I just tried to do everything 100 percent and do everything I could to the best of my ability.”
Plumlee acquitted himself well in a 59-31 defeat. He finished 10-of-28 for 141 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception. He rushed the football 25 times for 109 yards and a touchdown.
“I was probably the most impressed by talking to him when he came off the field to the sideline,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “What he was seeing, his eyes were in the right spot. He knew what was going on. For the first time starting, I thought he was pretty good.”
Plumlee began to sense on Wednesday that he was likely going to be thrust into action when Corral missed his second consecutive practice with bruised ribs, an ailment he suffered in the fourth quarter of the team’s loss to Cal last week. Corral’s exit from that game spawned Plumlee’s first collegiate action. His 7-for-7 performance in two drives ignited both a stagnant offense and an increasingly apathetic crowd. His final drive came up a yard short of a potential game-tying touchdown. But, much like in this game, his performance against the Bears was to spark a conversation about Corral’s job security even if the red shirt freshman’s aching ribs were healthy.
Uncertainty loomed all week as Corral remained idle in practice. Plumlee’s starting nod was essentially trial run. Overarching success or colossal failure would’ve provided clarity to Ole Miss’ quarterback uncertainty. His performance landed much closer to the former than the latter, but only made the Rebels’ quarterback fate murkier.
“Yeah, I think you have to look at everything,” Rodriguez said when asked whether Plumlee did enough to be considered for the permanent starting job. “I think when you get to this point, you evaluate everyone all the time. That’s what you do in any program. This idea of having someone locked into a position. Yeah, maybe Tua (Tagoviola) and the wideouts Alabama has. But they go compete every time they are out there. That’s what Coach Luke is trying to establish with our guys. Matt did that before he got hurt.
“It will be good to have some competition and we will see how the week goes.”
Plumlee’s dual-threat style translates to Rodriguez’s offense seamlessly in the sense that Rodriguez prefers to use the quarterback as a focal point of the unit’s rushing attack. It is no coincidence that Plumlee rushed the football 25 times and led the Rebels in carries and yards. For a reference point, Matt Corral has rushed the ball 41 times for the season and only once has he surpassed 10 carries in a game.
Plumlee scored the Rebels’ first touchdown with his feet from a yard out, capitalizing on an Alabama turnover on a muffed punt. He showed elusiveness in the pocket. He extended plays with his feet and showed keen vision on the designed runs.
“They preach to me to not take unnecessary shots,” Plumlee aaid. “But as a competitor, I like to stick my head in there and have some fun with it. I think I have to get better, but I think we can always get better as a team with the little things.”
Plumlee led three touchdown drives total. Two of those were 75-plus yards. He commanded three drives of sixty yards or more. Most of the work was done with his feet. He was fairly limited as a passer. He hit on some throws, made a couple of good match-up related decisions. But he also sailed some throws and threw an interception. Rodriguez didn’t afford him a lot of opportunities to push the football vertically down the field. Some of that is Plumlee being limited as a passer and some of it is because Ole Miss lacks a vertical threat at receiver. Jonathan Mingo, one of the candidates to emerge as said threat and a favorite target for Plumlee on the day, caught three balls for 74 yards and did some productive things.
“I thought John Rhys competed well,” head coach Matt Luke said. “ We have to do some thing better around him to help. He did some good things with his legs and I was glad to see him connect with Mingo. We didn’t have a lot of pre-snap penalties and I think that is because Plumlee managed the game well.”
The numbers via the air were far from earth shattering. Completing 10-of-28 passes won’t cut it in most SEC games. But considering the opponent, how he arrived in the situation and what Plumlee was working with offensively, he pieced together an admirable performance. He didn’t let the moment sweep him away and did not crumble amidst an unfavorable environment.
The result of this football game was never in doubt. Ole Miss and Alabama are programs on two vastly different wavelengths. The Rebels weren’t expected to compete in this game. The 37-point betting line is evidence enough of that. There was one storyline that coming that would affect this team long term: the quarterback uncertainty. Plumlee played well enough to earn a hard look at becoming the starter. Corral throws the football better than Plumlee, but Plumlee is a smoother fit in the running game. A Plumlee-led offense put up 24 points on the Crimson Tide, the most they’ve allowed this season. It netted over 400 yards of offense Of course, the lopsided score must be taken into account with regards to Alabama’s attention and intensity level.
Fellow true freshman Grant Tisdale entered the game on the team’s final drive and threw a touchdown to Jackson that capped a 75-yard scoring drive.
So what happens next as this team regroups with a home game against Vanderbilt? It’s a fluid and fickle situation that will be fascinating to watch play out.
“We still have to look at everyone,” Luke said. “We have a fan base that wants to win now. We have to build on the positives.”
CATCH BRIAN SCOTT Rippee’s postgame video chat:
Ole Miss loses 59-31 at Alabama https://t.co/vATIlGxQB6
— SportsTalk Mississippi (@SportsTalkMiss) September 28, 2019
PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics