It's all relative, but can the Ole Miss defense build off last week's encouraging effort?
What might have been lost among the barrage of turnovers in Ole Miss’ 33-21 defeat to Arkansas last Saturday was a short-handed Rebels defense put together a more than serviceable performance.
The numbers were hardly eye-popping. Arkansas ran for 150 and still totaled 394 yards of offense, but it was the first time this much-maligned Ole Miss defense had allowed less than 500 yards and fewer than 40 points this season.
Arkansas scored 33, but 14 came on a pair of pick-6s. The Razorbacks only scored 2 offensive touchdowns. Granted, the first score capped an 11-play, 95-yard drive, but overall, the defense gave the Rebels a chance to win.
“We just, collectively as a unit, decided we wanted to come out and play better defense,” defensive end Ryder Anderson said. “We’re tired of the disrespect we’ve been receiving.”
Anderson is one of the leaders on this struggling defense and thinks this was a performance his group can build upon. He was a significant part of the success. He agreed to move inside during fall camp from his native defensive end to help Ole Miss combat depth deficiencies on the interior. But against Arkansas, he moved around more and slid outside a handful of times.
Anderson played more snaps and the results were favorable.
The Rebels forced a Feleipe Franks fumble and an interception to help keep them in the game despite the offensive dysfunction. Neither Rakeem Boyd nor Trelon Smith had more than 55 yards rushing and the Razorbacks converted just 6-of-17 3rd-down attempts. If not for the defeat and the mystifying performance from Matt Corral, the defense’s performance would have been the overarching storyline coming out of the game.
Can Ole Miss build on this as it welcomes Auburn to Oxford this weekend? That’s the key question.
It’s easy to assume Corral will bounce back from his 6 interceptions, though it is possible Arkansas DC Barry Odom laid out a blueprint as to how to confuse and neutralize the sophomore quarterback with zone coverage concepts. Assuming Corral plays better, will the defense be able to complement it?
Auburn’s offense has been similar to Arkansas in the sense that it has been serviceable but hardly explosive. It’s yet to strike a winning balance.
Bo Nix is completing a shade under 55% of his passes and has played much worse on the road throughout his career than he has at home. Tank Bigsby is a talented back who is capable of gouging this Ole Miss defensive front if he is allowed too, but there is no single aspect of the Tigers’ offense that has been particularly dynamic to this point.
Auburn has dangerous weapons in the vertical passing game with Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, and if Ole Miss reverts to prior form defensively, that could be a concern.
On the flip side, potential aside, Auburn has only hit on 4 passes that covered at least 30 yards. (Ole Miss has 13 such completions.) And for the most part, Ole Miss’ secondary has prevented chunk plays, allowing just 6 completions of 30+ yards.
Last week, one of the keys was pressuring Franks, who has the arm strength to test any secondary. Can the Rebels replicate that this week against Nix?
“I think it was a combination of playing better, getting more pressure on the quarterback,” Lane Kiffin said. “I think it was a combination and they would say didn’t play their best and we did play better.”
Given Nix’s struggles, the logical mode of attack would be to pit Auburn’s run game against Ole Miss’ run defense, which ranks last in the SEC by a considerable margin. The Rebels already have allowed 1,060 yards and 14 rushing TDs in 4 games. That’s partially why the effort against Arkansas (150 yards on 3.13 per carry, with just 1 rushing TD) was so encouraging.
Curiously, however, 9 SEC teams have rushed the ball more than Auburn this season.
Maybe it’s because the Tigers weren’t sure what they had in Bigsby. Maybe it’s because Auburn’s offensive line has shown vulnerability. Nix has been sacked 10 times through 4 games and thrown 4 interceptions.
Those are Auburn’s problems to figure out.
The Rebels were without their best defensive lineman in Tariqious Tisdale last week. If he is able to return for this game, that would surely enhance their chances to making Nix uncomfortable and slow down whatever momentum Bigsby is building.
The Ole Miss defense showed signs of life last week in the loss. The offense is unlikely to stumble as severely as it did in Fayetteville and if this defensive unit it can build off that performance, the Rebels will be a much better football team down the backstretch of the 2020 season.