Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
Ole Miss bulldozed a winless New Mexico State team, 41-3, to the tune of 447 yards rushing and 606 yards of offense at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The result was predictable. The Rebels were athletic superior and ran over, past and around a hapless Aggies defense as the game slowly became a farce. They should be commended for taking care of business swiftly.
But the overarching storyline hanging over this team for the last five weeks has been the management of the alleged two-quarterback system offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez has elected to deploy ever since Matt Corral returned from a rib injury in the team’s loss to Missouri. The offense saw intermittent spurts of success rotating two quarterbacks in that road loss in Columbia. For the next week, Rodriguez and Matt Luke dubbed it a two-quarterback attack, citing that their vastly different skillsets could offer diversity and keep opponents off balance. It sounded nice.
But for the last three weeks, it has been anything but that. This is stating the obvious at this point, but Luke and Rodriguez have essentially made their choice.
John Rhys Plumlee played the majority of this game. Corral threw two passes (both of which he completed) for 35 yards. Ole Miss had eight possessions. Plumlee commanded seven of this drives, Corral played two and Kinkead Dent entered on the final drive. Plumlee ran all over the New Mexico State defense, flashing the speed and elusiveness that enticed the coaching staff and ignited a stagnant offense on that September day when he relieved an injured Corral against Cal. Plumlee rushed 12 times for 177 yards and two scores on the day. That’s the second most rushing yards in a single game by a quarterback in program history. He went 11-of-17 for 124 yards through the air. Corral spent most of the game confined to the sideline.
The coaches stayed on message despite what showed on the field.
“I think coming down the stretch we will need Matt,” Luke said. “Matt is a weapon. We can use him. I think we will need him at some point to help us win the next two games.”
Ole Miss threw for just 159 yards in this game on 19 combined attempts. It didn’t need to throw the football to dismantle this feeble opponent. Freshmen running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner tore through the Aggies’ defense by way of 280 yards and three combined scores in the absence of an injured Scottie Phillips.
“Most definitely,” Rodriguez said when asked if this is still a two-quarterback scheme. “Today was a little different because we were running the ball so much. We have two starting quarterbacks in my mind. Two very capable guys. Matt is very capable. I told him we are going to need him.”
Again, the on-field results tell a different story. Saturday provided further evidence of a trend that has now spanned three games: John Rhys Plumlee is this team’s quarterback. Corral played two series at Auburn after being sprinkled in periodically in the team’s home loss to Texas A&M. Despite Corral being the more polished passer, and the Rebels’ struggles in the vertical passing game, Plumlee has repeatedly been given the nod. The results have been mixed. Ole Miss hasn’t tossed a passing touchdown in three games. It compiled 266 yards of offense last week in the lost and mustered just 17 points against an average A&M defense the week before. The Rebels haven’t thrown for 250 yards in a game since the Cal loss and have two games with less than 100 yards throwing in that span.
After a frustrating loss a week ago, the staff said they wanted to see more out of the passing game this week. They said they saw progress despite just 19 attempts.
“I was happy to see us convert on some third and fourth down through the air,” Luke said. “I think we hit Mingo on a slant one time, hit an out route. It was good to hit Pellerin over the middle a couple times when they played two-high coverage. That was good to see.”
The theme with this run-heavy attack that features Plumlee is that it works quite well against lowly defenses like Vanderbilt and New Mexico State, but becomes predicable and easy to solve against average to elite ones like A&M and Auburn.
The Rebels have a formidable defense and a bad one remaining on the schedule. LSU boasts the SEC’s sixth best scoring defense and Mississippi State is 12th. Will the results continue to mirror the opponent? It seems likely unless the Rebels become more multi-dimensional.
“You don’t want to force the issue when we are running the ball really well,” Rodriguez said. “I thought our backs ran really hard and we did a good job up front. Plumlee had some nice runs. That is who we are to this point. There are going to be times where teams are going to force you to throw. I have confidence in us to do that.”
One would think this has to be frustrating for Corral, who was dubbed the face of the program in the offseason, only to have the plug pulled on his development four games in. Luke maintains the two have had a great attitude about this unconventional dynamic. The attrition at the position has already begun with Grant Tisdale’s departure last month. Some of that is only natural with four freshman quarterbacks. But this coaching staff has the ability to shape the attrition in some ways with how it manages the position. Do more departures loom?
“I thought Matt was really good (on the sideline) in the first half,” Luke said. “I know he wanted to play. He is a competitor. The way he has handled it on the sideline has been unbelievable. He stayed ready and when his time came, he took advantage.”