Matt Corral is great, but Ole Miss' resurgent defense will determine how high Rebels climb
Beyond Matt Corral’s heroic performance on Saturday night, the overarching reason Ole Miss won at Tennessee was because of how its defense played.
A much-maligned group did more than enough to give the Rebels a chance to win. They got a handful of crucial stops in the second half that kept the Vols at bay. Ole Miss held Tennessee to under 4.5 yards per rush, which was a key statistic in more ways than one because it got the Volunteers in more 3rd-and-long situations. Because of that, Josh Heupel was forced to use Hendon Hooker’s arm to convert, and it became evident early on that he did not trust Hooker to do that on a consistent basis.
The obvious passing situations also allowed them to be more aggressive in blitzing a weak Tennessee offensive line that lost Cade Mays in the first quarter. Ole Miss registered 5 sacks, by far their most against an SEC opponent this season. Sam Williams and Cedric Johnson were sensational off the edge. Having Jake Springer back for the first time since Louisville was also a huge boost in stopping the run and disrupting Hooker.
It was clear DJ Durkin felt more comfortable being more aggressive in dialing up blitzes with Springer on the field as opposed to the past 4 games without him.
All of those things the Rebels did to hold Tennessee under 30 points to win a game in which its offense was banged up, they will need to do again this week against an LSU team that now knows Ed Orgeron soon will be out of a job.
The Tigers upset Florida at home last week, largely due to rushing the ball for 321 yards — by far the most LSU has run for this season in a year in which they’ve struggled to run the football.
Of course, the news coming out of that game was Orgeron’s exit at the end of the season. It remains unknown how motivated LSU will be to play for a man that reportedly has lost the locker room, but the fact still remains that LSU found a running game and that has been Ole Miss’ Achilles heel on defense this year.
“LSU always has great players, they put it together with the running game last week. I saw the back running people over like Leonard Fournette. That’s a challenge obviously,” Lane Kiffin said.
Ty Davis-Price torched the Gators to the tune of 287 yards (breaking Fournette’s school record) on 36 carries with 3 touchdowns. For the first time all year, it looked like LSU was committed to running the football, even if it didn’t have immediate success early on in the game.
By comparison, LSU ran for more yards against Florida than it did in 4 of its previous 6 combined. The Tigers ran for more yards on the Gators than they did against Central Michigan, McNeese State and UCLA combined. This newfound rushing attack comes at an opportune time given the opponent they are facing.
The Rebels are going to need a similar defensive effort against LSU’s ground attacks as they had in Knoxville. It’s hard to overstate what Springer’s presence did for the rest of the team. It seemingly helped unlock Mark Robinson, who had 14 tackles, including 5 for a loss. The linebackers played freely and more aggressively and the defensive line had some added help as opposed to getting double teamed on nearly every play.
“I just help as much as I can wherever I need to, be versatile,” Springer said. “Everyone in our safeties room is versatile and can play a whole lot of different positions. Whenever our number is called, we step up and make a play.”
He might be the most important player on Ole Miss’ defense, and if the Rebels have a repeat performance stopping the run as they did in Knoxville, it will be further evidence as to why.
As Ole Miss tries to survive the month of October and return to health offensively, it will need to lean on this defense a little more than it has in the previous 5 games.
Last Saturday was the first time that the Rebels’ D wasn’t a liability Matt Corral had to overcome.
The Rebels suddenly are a dark-horse candidate to crash the Playoff field.
How long they stay that way will depend largely on how close — and how often — the Rebels’ defense can replicate its performance at Tennessee.
A strong performance against LSU’s newfound success rushing the football would be a great place to start.