Ta’amu, Offense Struggle Against Crimson Tide Defense

The first 11 seconds of this game seemingly served as validation of how explosive this Ole Miss offense can be. D.K. Metcalf beat Alabama corner Saivion Smith down the near sideline and caught a 75-yard deep ball from Jordan Ta’amu for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. It gave the Rebels a 7-0 lead over the Crimson Tide and sent a crowd into a frenzy.

Reality hit in remaining 58 plus minutes as Ole Miss succumbed to the best defense in college football and the offense showed its flaws when facing a good defense. The Rebels gained just 248 yards on 59 plays. Ta’amu had success in spots, but was forced to use his feet more than he’s accustomed to and looked uncomfortable when the pocket broke down even slightly. He absorbed a brutal hit on a quarterback draw in the first quarter and fumbled the football. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo thought it may have affected Ta’amu for the remainder of the game.

“I don’t think it was anything serious but I think it affected him a bit,” Longo said. “We expected to have a better performance as an offense this week. We preached the little things this week. In a game like this, when playing a team of this caliber you have to play mistake-free football. We didn’t do that.”

Alabama’s quickness — particularly on the edge — flushed Ta’amu out of the pocket. It affected his accuracy as a result.

“I just had the internal clock and when see pressure I try to escape as fast as I can or find the open receiver,” Ta’amu said. “They had speed on the outside and brought pressure.”

Ta’amu was 7-for-22 for 133 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked four times.

It’s worth remembering – taking nothing away from what Ta’amu did in Shea Patterson’s absence last year — that before this game he had not faced a defense that could be deemed as strong aside Mississippi State in last year’s Egg Bowl, a game in which he went 10-for-22 for 247 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. On this night, he had less time to throw and was more erratic throwing the football. Ole Miss struggled to run the football with any consistent success, which was to be expected against the Tide’s front seven and largely irrelevant after the Rebels fell behind 28-7 in the first 10 minutes of the game.

The offense was stifled, but it wasn’t for a lack of aggression. On its second play of the game and the first play of its second drive after the Metcalf touchdown, Ta’amu tested Alabama’s other cornerback — Trevon Diggs — on a deep ball to Damarkus Lodge down the far sideline. Lodge created a small amount of separation but Diggs essentially hung with Lodge step-for-step and broke up the pass. Different variations of that one play happened all throughout a first half that saw Alabama put the game away with 49 points and 418 yards of offense. It also highlighted the difference in playing a top-tier SEC defense as opposed to an average BIG 12 unit like Texas Tech.

Ole Miss has one of the best receiving corps in college football and will extremely difficult for any team in this league to match up with. That is indisputable. But the receivers aren’t going to be able bully some SEC defensive backs the way they did in the first two games and the Rebels’ struggles to consistently move the football in other ways showed on this night. Running back Scottie Phillips broke a couple of productive runs early, but the Rebels struggled to find consistent success running against Alabama’s front seven. Falling behind 28-7 in the first quarter also forced them to throw the ball more.

“I don’t think we tried to abandon the run,” Longo said. “When you are balanced and throwing the ball down the field well it opens up the field. We felt like we could continue to do that. It was our intent to run the football against Alabama tonight.”

Yes, Alabama is the gold standard in college and every team it plays is going struggle to move the football. Yes, the story from this game is undoubtedly how alarmingly talent deficient and lost the Ole Miss defense is. But it is worth pointing out that if the defense doesn’t improve drastically over the next eight games — and it is hard to see the unit improving to a level that would make a difference — one cannot assume the offense will be able to completely mask the defensive ineptitude.

Though the outcome was not surprising, this game telling in a couple areas. Most of it spoke to the impending struggles of a defense devoid of talent. But it also highlighted the fact that Ole Miss’ high powered, air-raid offense won’t be able to always sling it across the field at will. Alabama’s secondary was longer and quicker than any defense Ta’amu has faced in his career. It showed in the aforementioned pass breakups on deep balls.

“They can play man-to-man,” Ta’amu said. “They are a lot more physical and a lot faster. They put their hands in the right spot before the ball gets there. That is basically the difference is the speed and their ability to change directions.”

As for the big picture? This game showed how Ole Miss has fallen since twice slaying a Nick Saban-bred giant in back-to-back years and just how far it has to go as this once embattled program tries to pick itself back up off the mat.

“We can’t let this beat us twice,” head coach Matt Luke said. “We’ve got to go back to work.”