Strong rushing performance not enough to erase early deficit as Rebels fall to LSU

PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy – Ole Miss Athletics 

OXFORD — Ole Miss never stood a chance after a sluggish start landed it in a four-touchdown hole as the Rebels fell 58-37 to LSU on Saturday evening.

Joe Burrow and a high-flying Tigers’ offense unleashed an air-heavy dismantling of a young and shorthanded secondary in the game’s first 20 minutes that sealed a predicable fate. 

“You have to get stops and score touchdowns,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I thought they battled and competed. The second half wasn’t the problem. We did some uncharacteristic things in the first half. I have to have them ready to go.” 

But after the Tigers’ initial assault, Ole Miss hung in the ring fairly well with the nation’s best offense. The Rebels amassed 614 yards of offense and 405 in the second half alone. John Rhys Plumlee had a monster night on the ground with 212 yards on 21 carries and four touchdowns, a record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game. The fleet-footed true freshman gashed the Tigers’ defense with quarterback counters. He broke touchdown runs of 46, 60 and 35 yards. Jerrion Ealy ran for 141 yards on 13 touches. It’s the first 100-yard game of his young career.

“It’s exciting to see the young guys do it,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “It is exciting for the future. The bigger the stage, it doesn’t bother them. We are going to add some pieces to it and get better

At this point it is clear that Luke and Rodriguez have changed direction in terms of the identity of this offense and its signal caller. Plumlee is their guy. The positive aspects of what that future can be flashed through frustration a 21-point home loss. But the same questions and uncertainties surrounding it still loom. Whether this is sustainable long term remains unclear. Ole Miss’ offense leans on the feet of Plumlee. It hinges on breaking big plays. Is running your quarterback 21 times and allowing him to throw just 16 passes viable over the course of an entire season? Plumlee put together a pair of incredible performances on the ground against Alabama and LSU, but counting on that every week seems like a hard gamble.

“I thought John Rhys continued to grow up,” Luke said. “He is a freshman. He will continue to get better. It was good to see us get some movement on some naked bootlegs off the running game. Again, I think he made one mistake. But I think he is seeing things better.”

Plumlee was 9-of-16 passing for 123 yards and an interception on the night. Ole Miss was more successful passing the ball than it has been in a month. The Rebels threw for 200 yards for the first time since an October 12 road loss at Missouri. Matt Corral’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Elijah Moore was the team’s first passing touchdown since the Missouri game as well. Plumlee hit Moore for completions of 30 and 28 yards. The passing attack looked marginally better, but again, the bar has been set pretty low. Rodriguez’s reluctance to allow Plumlee to drop makes it more difficult to fully gauge what he is as a passer and how much he can improve. 

“He made a couple nice throws,” Rodriguez said. “He can make all of the throws. There are a couple we would really like to have back, but he will learn from them and keep getting better.”

Ole Miss simply ran into a buzz saw in the form of the most prolific offensive attack in the sport. Burrow had two first-half incompletions. He had 319 yards and three touchdowns in the opening half alone. He finished 32-42 with five for 489 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Keidron Smith and freshman Deantre Prince picked off Burrow on back-to-back drives in the second half, but it wasn’t close to enough to mask the busted coverages and blunders that nation’s most accurate quarterback preyed upon.

“Their receivers are really good and Burrow does a great job of getting the ball to them on stride like Tua does,” defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre said. “We started settling a little bit at first. They are really good too.”

The Rebels couldn’t keep pace with Burrow and the high-flying attack early in the game and stood little to no chance to catch up after the sluggish start. The offense did its best to trim the margin, but the defense was unable to generate much resistance.

“Better decisions on my part,” Plumlee said. “At halftime, everyone got a little bit more motivated. Coming out of half, when we had that big run, it just gave us a little bit of momentum.”

This team was out-manned, but the Rebels didn’t wilt when the conditions were ripe — trailing 28-0 at home against the top-ranked team in the country. Ole Miss ls continue to flash signs of improvement despite a disjointed offensive scheme and an abnormal reliance on a single player. But the progress will be easier to sell when the results come. Saturday’s game featured two programs on drastically different wavelengths and Ole Miss fell victim to the monster that is the LSU offense, as have the Tigers’ other nine opponents this season.

“Give them credit,” Luke said. “They are just really good.”