Rebels trying to plug holes in defense

Published 7:50 am Wednesday, September 12, 2018

OXFORD (AP) — Ole Miss’ football team can look vastly different from one minute to the next.

Catch the Rebels on offense, and they look like one of the nation’s elite teams. Catch them on defense, and it’s easy to wonder how they’re going to win a Southeastern Conference game this season.

Both units will have to play well when Ole Miss hosts No. 1 Alabama on Saturday in the conference opener for both teams. Ole Miss (2-0) will be about a three-touchdown underdog when it plays the Crimson Tide (2-0), who beat the Rebels 66-3 one year ago in Tuscaloosa.

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For second-year Ole Miss coach Matt Luke, it’s a chance to show fans and recruits that the Rebels are still a factor in the SEC Western Division.

“We’ll obviously have a lot of prospects here, and it’s a good opportunity for them to see Oxford at its best,” Luke said. “Night game in The Grove, stadium packed, it’ll be a great atmosphere of college football.”

That atmosphere will turn sour in a hurry if Ole Miss can’t figure out how to stop someone on defense.
The Rebels currently rank 123rd in the nation out of 128 teams in total defense, giving up more than 550 yards per game. The main reason they’ve still won their first two games is the offense ranks No. 8 out of 128 in total offense, piling up nearly 600 yards per game.

The Ole Miss offense is stacked with talented players who likely have NFL futures, including left tackle Greg Little and receivers A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge. The same can’t be said for the defense, which lacks star power and gave up more than 600 yards and 41 points to FCS-level Southern Illinois last weekend.

The defensive ineptitude in that game was shockingly obvious, with uncovered Southern Illinois receivers making easy catches and then bouncing off would-be tacklers.

The Salukis actually led Ole Miss 38-35 at halftime before the Rebels roared back for the 76-41 victory. The comfortable final margin did little to alleviate the defensive concerns.

Luke and Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said the Rebels’ defensive struggles were much more about motivation than X’s and O’s.

“I’ve got to get them going in the first half,” McGriff said. “It wasn’t about scheme. We didn’t change the scheme in the second half. We, as a staff, have got to get them going, get them playing fast, playing with some energy. That’s our job to get that done.”

One thing Ole Miss has stressed is the need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Rebels had just one sack against Southern Illinois, and three tackles for loss.

If Alabama sophomore Tua Tagovailoa isn’t under some duress on Saturday, it’s probably going to be a long night for the Rebels. Tagovailoa has completed more than 71 percent of his passes for 455 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions this season.

Tagovailoa was 13-of-19 for 228 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 57-7 rout of Arkansas State last weekend.

“He’s got a really quick release. He has very good receivers to throw it to. Then his ability to extend plays. You watch their first touchdown against Louisville, he extended the play and made a play with his feet,” Luke said of Tagovailoa. “He keeps drives going on third down by scrambling out of the pocket. His ability to extend plays, and obviously his decision making, has been good.”

Tagovailoa has gotten most of the playing time for the Crimson Tide, but is still splitting snaps with Jalen Hurts. Hurts was 7-of-9 for 93 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas State.

Alabama’s strong quarterback play has led to an offensive explosion. It has scored 108 points, piled up 1,118 yards and has 12 pass plays of 20 yards or more in two games.

Alabama’s quarterbacks have been sacked just twice in their first two games.

“One of our goals on defense is to wreck the decision-maker,” McGriff said. “We have to get to the quarterback. We have to impact the game. We have to get him off schedule.”

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