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Shorthanded Ole Miss Defense Looked Better, But More to be Learned in Upcoming Stretch

The minutiae of it all wasn’t glamorous or visually appeasing at times, but the results for the Ole Miss defense in its 70-21 win over Louisiana Monroe were certainly a positive sign in a season in which optics have been the overarching theme.

The Rebels gave up 263 first half yards to the Warhawks and lost two more members of the secondary to injury, but only yielded one score of consequence in a game that quickly became a rout. ULM drove the ball deep into Ole Miss territory a couple of times, only to turn it over on downs or cough up the football in the red zone — a play that saw linebacker Mohamed Sanogo force the fumble and fellow linebacker Donta Evans recover it. Kevontae’ Ruggs recovered a fumble late in the game that defensive end Ryder Anderson forced.

“I liked the turnovers, particularly the one in the red zone,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “I thought our blitz speed was a lot better today and I thought we stayed in attack mode. That was one of our musts coming into the game.”

Armani Linton — who moved back to safety from running back this week due to a barrage of injuries — came free on a blitz and recorded a sack. He had six tackles total in the game. Fellow running back-turned-safety Tylan Knight recorded three tackles and a half tackle for loss. The two were the story of the week and were thrust even further into the action after C.J. Miller went down with an ankle injury in the first half and Myles Hartsfield also left the game with an injury.

“We talked a lot in the locker room about unselfishness of Armani Linton and Tylan Knight, going from offense to defense and having to play a lot of snaps,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I think Armani got a sack and Tylan made a couple of big plays. I think they will get some experience from that and get better moving forward. We are going to need them.”

McGriff said he didn’t feel as if he had to limit severely limit the calls despite the lack of experience. If Miller or Hartsfield are to miss any extended time at all, Linton and Knight’s snap count will only soar upward/

“I just settled in and was able to play my game,” Linton said. “Coach McGriff made the right calls and put me in the right situations. As the game went on, I got more confident.”–1rsdc

The defense forced ULM to turn it over on downs three times and the defense recorded six total sacks. The Warhawks gained 407 yards of offense, 263 of that coming in the first half, but the Rebels only let them in the end zone one time while the game was still competitive. It isn’t ideal, but that is likely going to be the way this defense is going to have to play to give Ole Miss a chance because the miscues and talent deficiencies don’t appear to be going anywhere.

“I just want to make sure we take advantage of third downs,” Luke said. “I do like the way they bow their neck In the red zone and we were able to get a few turnovers off of that. That was good.”

ULM was 5-for-15 on third downs.

There isn’t a lot to be taken from this game, given the opponent. But this is the same defense that gave up 638 yards of offense and 38 first-half points to Southern Illinois and let Kent State move the ball up-and-down the field at will. Sox, if nothing else, the Rebels gained a bit of a confidence boost after getting throttled in Baton Rouge a week ago against a Tiger offense that entered the game as statistically the worst offense in the SEC.

The injuries to Miller and Hartsfield are large concerns for an already depleted secondary. Luke didn’t know the extent of Miller’s ankle injury and did not believe Hartsfield suffered a serious injury even though he did not return to the game (It very likely could have been precautionary), but the secondary is getting thinner by the week.

The team is about to hit a more manageable stretch of its schedule and the defense putting together a better performance on the stat sheet is a positive sign, but one that should be taken with a grain of salt. The Rebels have Arkansas, Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M Vanderbilt and Mississippi State left on their schedule. At least two of those defenses — and likely Texas A&M as well — are capable enough of slowing down an Ole Miss offense that set a yardage record in this win. The defense is going to need to play better than it has through the first few games of this season.

Again, this season has largely been about optics for Ole Miss — in both the four wins and the two losses. It hasn’t looked pretty at times. Both losses were blowouts that were not competitive from the first snap. The wins featured some good moments and some head scratching ones too. Today was a positive from an optics standpoint for this defense. The Rebels didn’t head into the locker room trailing as they did against Southern Illinois. They didn’t sputter on offense to a 7-7 first half tie like Kent State. Ole Miss took care of its business in an efficient manner. But the fact of the matter is that we will find out a lot about this defense and this team over the next stretch of games, and particularly next Saturday night in Little Rock.

“The goal is to go 1-0 each week,” Luke said. “Tomorrow we will watch the tape, move forward and try to do the same next week. We are 4-2 now and go on the road in the SEC. We have to go play well in Little Rock.”

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