PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
Story by SportsTalk Mississippi Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee
MEMPHIS, TENN — The forecasted growing pains were inevitable for a young Ole Miss offense that looked unrecognizably different than the 2018 version.
The personnel is different. The coordinator is new and so is the scheme.
But those growing pains surfaced far too frequently and it spelled catastrophe in the Rebels’ 15-10 loss to Memphis at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday. The offense totaled 173 yards for the game and just 42 in an opening half in which it took the Rebels more than a quarter to complete a first down.
Rich Rodriguez didn’t sugarcoat the performance.
“I didn’t do a good job,” Rodriguez said. “We can play better than this. We have a lot of work to do. We just didn’t execute well.”
An offensive line that was considered to be arguably the gravest concern on the roster heading into the season was pummeled at the point of attack by the Tigers defensive line early in the game. Ole Miss’ first 10 rushes netted one yard. Memphis lived in the Rebels’ backfield in the opening quarter. Matt Corral absolved a trio of sacks and was hurried 10 times. The team averaged 2.4 yards per rush.
“We really struggled offensively in a hurry,” head coach Matt Luke said. “We have to grow up in a hurry. We struggled to block them against some movement up front early. We stayed behind the chains and couldn’t get anything going.”
The first play of Ole Miss’ first three drives went for a loss of one, another loss of one and a loss of six yards. It put the Rebels in second and third and long situations. They did their best to combat the relentless rush by moving the pocket and getting Corral moving to his left and right, but it was to no avail. Corral had little time to throw, sailed a couple of open targets and made a handful of poor decisions. One of the errant throws resulted in a second-quarter interception on a hitch-and-go in which Dontario Drummond beat the corner. Corral was off on the throw and a lurking free safety snared the football.
Corral said after the game he’d like to have the throw back. He offered little insight beyond that, citing that it was as simple as a lack of execution.
“It was nothing they did differently or anything like that,” a frustrated Corral repeated. “We just didn’t execute. Missed blocks, missed reads, it all just came together. We had a good game plan. We just didn’t execute. It’s as simple as that.”
In a lot of ways, the Rebels were fortunate to only be down 13-0 when they entered the locker room at halftime. The second half bore better results. Ole Miss ran more power running plays for Phillips which bred more success. It had 105 yards in the third quarter alone, but only possessed the football four times and scored reached the end zone just one time.
The offense looked both overwhelmed and confused at times throughout this game, some of that is to be expected with a redshirt freshman quarterback, a slew of new receivers and a thin and inexperienced offensive line. But there’s no time for mistakes with the Rebels’ September schedule. Arkansas comes to Oxford next week. California awaits two weeks later. The games perceived as realistically winnable occur in the season’s first month. The offense has to get better quickly if the team is to be successful and Luke reiterated that in his postgame presser.
“We had fewer negative plays in the second half for sure,” Luke said. “We have to do a lot of growing up offensively.”
Ole Miss had possession of the football down three points with just under seven minutes remaining in the game. The Rebels didn’t take advantage of the unlikely position they found themselves in. Cornered against its own goal line, the offense took the field for a drive that could’ve tied the game if it was productive enough to get into field goal range, or given the Rebels a lead if they were able to move the ball 99 yards. More dysfunction beckoned.
The series lasted one play. Corral was hammered by an unblocked Bryce Huff off the left side.
“Miscommunication. A guy got confused and missed the block. I didn’t have time to throw it away,” Corral said.
The safety pitted Ole Miss against both the game clock and the scoreboard as the Tigers got the ball back on the free kick. The Rebels never saw the football again. Memphis salted the game away on what was its final drive. It got four first downs, narrowly converted a fourth-and-two with a shuttle pass on its own 46 and didn’t leave the game up to chance.
The offense’s ineptitude left the defense on the field for 82 plays, over 38 minutes of game action. The defense was fatigued toward the end of the game, but gave the Rebels a chance to win. The offense’s putrid performance was simply too much to overcome.
“We couldn’t get a rhythm going,” Rodriguez said. “It’s when you’re a tempo team to get into a rhythm when you don’t get first downs.”
Rodriguez will re-watch the game on the bus ride home and see where the growing pains ached the most. Mistakes were to be expected with this young roster as it tries to acclimate to a new system, but the unit was engulfed by gaffes and communication lapses for the entirety. The line didn’t block, the running backs had little space and Corral wasn’t accurate with the football.
The result was a rotten performance and a stinging defeat. Sweeping and premature assumptions will be made from this. The season is still young, but if drastic improvement isn’t made rapidly, the Rebels are in for a long 2019 campaign.
“Matt will bounce back,” Luke said. “We will bounce back from this.”
Catch Brian Scott Rippee’s postgame periscope chat here
Ole Miss loses to Memphis, 15-10. Postgame reaction https://t.co/s6B3AT9e3b
— SportsTalk Mississippi (@SportsTalkMiss) August 31, 2019
MacIntyre’s defense flashes improvement
The blame for Ole Miss’ 15-10 loss to Memphis on Saturday can be dispersed widely, but the Rebels defense should shirk the bulk of it.
A unit that returned most of its personnel from one of the worst defenses in college football in 2018, flashed improvement on Saturday. The Tigers offense is not of the same caliber the Ole Miss defense will face when SEC play begins, but it is no doormat either. The Rebels held the Memphis to 364 yards of total offense, a drastic enhancement from virtually any game a season ago. The defense did not allow a point in the second half, held Memphis to 3.4 yards per rush and contained quarterback Brady White to a pedestrian performance. White was 23-of-31 for 172 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Simply put, a defense that had potential to be the reason Ole Miss lost the game, gave it every opportunity to win it. The offense did not deliver.
“The team I watched on film last year wouldn’t have kept battling like they did today,” defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre said. “I thought the kids played extremely hard.”
MacIntyre’s men were on the field a lot. Memphis dominated time of possession. The Tigers ran 82 plays to the Rebels 52 and possessed the football for over 38 minutes, a statistic that has less to do with the performance of the Tigers offense and more to do with the putrid one the Ole Miss offense cobbled together.
Fatigue showed toward the end of the game. The defense strung together numerous stops, but wasn’t able to muster one more in the fourth quarter as Memphis salted away the final 6:21 on the clock after a safety gave the Tigers the football with a five-point lead. Ole Miss forced Memphis into a fourth-and-two scenario at the Tiger own 46. Matt Luke called timeout to regroup. Mike Norvell called a shovel pass that the Rebels nearly thwarted at the line of scrimmage, but running back Kenny Gainwell escaped one tackle and lunged forward for a first down.
“We were looking for a quarterback sneak like they had done on the other fourth down,” Benito Jones said. “We thought wrong.”
Memphis earned two more first down and melted the remaining two minutes and change.
“I thought we stuffed it, but they barely got it,” MacIntyre said with a grimace. Even in a stinging defeat, the first-year defensive coordinator could sense his once embattled group gaining confidence. MacIntyre was largely pleased with the performance, as was his boss.
“There were some bright spots for sure,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Our defense kept us in it for the whole game. They looked like a much-improved group. We have a ton of growing up to do offensively.”
Junior college transfer linebacker Lakia Henry led tied for the team lead in tackles with seven. Josiah Coatney had seven tackles and a sack. Ryder Anderson had six tackles and a half a sack. Ole Miss didn’t generate much of a pass rush, but that was mostly a byproduct of what Memphis was doing. The Tigers didn’t let White drop back and throw the ball down the field. White distributed the ball to his wide receivers in space on the perimeter. The ball left his hand quickly. The Rebels fared well against the strategy. Running back Patrick Taylor had 27 carries for 128 yards and a score. Ole Miss held him in check mostly, but struggled the most when Memphis handed Taylor the ball in its two-tight end sets.
“We are big and powerful,” MacIntyre said. “When we went nickel early, they ran the ball. We stayed in a base 3-4 and it helped us a lot on third downs. The outside linebackers can fly around. I thought we did well in space. We are always going to be worried about teams attacking us in space, but we did well. It is difficult for the receivers to block those bigger guys.”
The first of the two touchdowns the defense allowed came with the help of two personal fouls. The Rebels forced two fourth downs on Memphis’ 13-play, 74-yard drive. Junior defensive end Sam Williams committed two personal fouls that extended the drive. The first was a facemask and the second was a questionable roughing the passer call. MacIntyre hopes Williams, a junior college transfer playing in his Division-I game, will learn from it.
The second touchdown came on a short field after a three-and-out from the Ole Miss offense. Memphis started at the Rebels 37 and took advantage with six points. The Tigers didn’t score again.
A year ago, Ole Miss lost games because of its horrific defense. If the Rebels entered the fourth quarter of a game with just three points, they were likely being blown out. Today, Ole Miss entered the fourth quarter with three points and was still very much in the game. The defense was the sole reason the Rebels were in the game for four quarters, rather than being the reason they didn’t have a chance, like so many times in the last three seasons.
“We have some things to sure up that Arkansas will attack,” MacIntyre said. “But I hope they are gaining confidence. I hope they realize what we are doing. I hope they see the techniques we are teaching them and why attention to detail is so important.”