Sure, the Week 2 opponent will help, but Ole Miss' defense has to get better. Fast
It was truly a tale of two sides for Ole Miss in its 51-35 season-opening loss to Florida last weekend.
The offense looked better than anyone, and probably even the coaching staff, could have expected. The defensive performance was the exact opposite. The Rebels were gashed for 642 yards of offense, 446 of which came via the passing game. They allowed 4 touchdowns to tight end Kyle Pitts alone.
Lane Kiffin perhaps put it best in his Monday press conference when asked if there were any positives that could be taken away with regards to the defense’s execution.
“No,” Kiffin acutely quipped.
Granted, Florida might have the most complete offense in the Southeastern Conference if its running game holds true to the 196 yards it did against a hapless Ole Miss defensive line, but the Rebels are going undoubtedly going to have to improve defensively if they wish to compete at Kentucky this week.
Wildcats quarterback Terry Wilson will be a fairer litmus test for this young Ole Miss secondary. Kyle Trask is the most accurate passer in the SEC and picked a hapless secondary apart. Wilson is a much more limited passer, and if his success rate gets anywhere close to Trask’s, that is a much more alarming indictment on this secondary and defense as a whole.
“Any time you give up the numbers we gave up, it’s not just one area,” Kiffin said. “We did not get very much rush and we did not cover well. That’s not a good combination. Like I said during the game, that’s how you end up with a battle for the SEC offensive player of the year between a quarterback and a tight end.”
Wilson was 24-for-37 for 239 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Kentucky’s loss to Auburn. He is known as a conservative thrower who does not often push the football down the field. In 2018, the last full season he played due to an injury that cost him the majority of the 2019 season, he threw for just 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 starts.
Kentucky fans were less than thrilled with Wilson’s play and the Wildcats’ Week 1 offensive output.
Does Ole Miss hold him to that moderate level of production or does he bust out? If the latter is the case, the Rebels have little chance to compete. The pass defense woes are a two-pronged issue. Ole Miss did not generate a consistent pass rush against Florida. That was their biggest question mark heading into the season and was hardly a surprise. The secondary’s inability to mask that at all is what was surprising and made for a brutal performance overall.
The Rebels were not at full strength in either capacity. Defensive end Brandon Mack did not play due to an injury and the Rebels have yet to hear an eligibility ruling on transfer safety Otis Reece. Both of their services are sorely needed. Mack was the talk of camp for his play up front in the absence of Sam Williams — who missed most of camp with an off-the-field issue and very much looked as if he was still working his way back into shape on Saturday. Williams is Ole Miss’ best pass rusher and Mack might end up being the second-best. The Rebels need both healthy and on the field.
Even with Trask having an abundance of time to throw, the secondary missed tackles and blew assignments. Young players like Jalen Jordan and Jay Stanley struggled at times and the older defenders — outside of Keidron Smith — were not consistently in good position. Their collective improvement will have to be drastic from week one to week two.
How does Ole Miss get to Wilson and how does the secondary atone for its Week 1 mistakes? That will be the overarching factor in whether or not they are able to get into the win column.