Ole Miss football: Defensive improvement crucial for Rebels to win in Knoxville
In many ways, Ole Miss is facing a mirror image of itself in the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday.
The Volunteers have scored 107 points in their last two games, both wins against two lowly defenses in South Carolina and Missouri. Josh Heupel and Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby run incredibly similar schemes, stemming back to their shared time at UCF in 2018-19.
Tennessee has looked like a different team on offense since Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker took over at quarterback. He has completed 69.7 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 1 interception, and he’s a crucial part of the Volunteers’ rushing attack that leads the SEC in yards per game. That running game is part of what allows them to play uptempo and wear opponents down.\
Tennessee is going to run right at Ole Miss and make its intentions clear. It will look similar to Arkansas and Alabama in volume, but likely different in terms of the types of runs. Tiyon Evans has been a revelation for the Volunteers at running back, and his success has completely changed the complexion of this offense. Evans is averaging 6.7 yards per rush and leads the team in rushing despite missing a game. Evans and Hooker will be another quarterback-running back combination that the Rebels will be forced to slow down if they wish to force Tennessee to throw at all.
It’s going to prove to be a tough test for an Ole Miss defense that allowed 676 yards and 51 points to Arkansas last week while it was on the field for 95 plays. The Rebels don’t have enough depth on that side of the ball to withstand being on the field that long, and getting stops on 3rd down against Tennessee will be crucial.
“Just not getting off the field, and then with that tempo guys wear down and guys do not look the same later in the game on defense as they did earlier,” Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin said. “I think that happened on both sides. There’s 2 keys — one is to play more players, but the other, more important one is to get off the field on 3rd and 4th down so that those guys can keep going.”
A lot has been made of the Rebels’ 3-2-6 defensive scheme and its inability to stop the run and consistently pressure quarterbacks. Tennessee has a weaker and more banged-up offensive line than Arkansas and Alabama, and the Volunteers will not be as potent running off the center and guard gaps, but they’re still more than capable of torching Ole Miss on the ground. If there were ever a game for D.J. Durkin to get more creative in the wrinkles of this struggling scheme, it’s this one, against an offense that is clicking as well as it has all season.
“We made a change to it, we know it works, we’ve seen it work for us, we’ve seen it work for other people,” Kiffin said. “Arkansas coming in the last week was giving up before us 17 points a game and 270 yards or something. It works when you do it right. We have to get off the field on 3rd down, we have to play more players and we have to tackle. Same as last year, we were in a different scheme, but if we don’t tackle, it doesn’t matter where people are. And that showed up.”
In a game that is set up to be a track meet, whichever defense is able to string together a couple of stops per half to allow its offense to create separation on the scoreboard will likely decide it. This Ole Miss defense has flunked its 1st 2 SEC tests. This game will be a chance to prove it has in fact improved from being one of the worst in FBS in 2020. And if it doesn’t, the Rebels are going to have a hard time winning in Knoxville.