Offensive woes resurface as Rebels fall short in 20-14 loss at Auburn
Photo credit: Joshua McCoy Ole Miss Athletics 
  • Story by SportsTalk Mississippi Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee

AUBURN, AL — It was the same song and dance.

Three putrid quarters from an offense without an identity applied stress on an improved, but thin defensive that came up short.

Rinse and repeat.

Ole Miss was out-gained 507-266, possessed the ball for 13 fewer minutes and threw for less than 100 yards. Through it all, like most games, the Rebels right there as the game’s final minutes unfolded. They gave themselves a chance at victory, in this case, to shock 11th-ranked Auburn on the road, but eventually succumbed to a litany of mistakes and offensive dysfunction in a 20-14 loss to Auburn inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“I thought our guys competed well down to the very end,” head coach Matt Luke said. “We just  left some plays out there.” 

On the surface, it’s hard to fault the Rebels for this loss. They couldn’t match up against one of the nation’s best defensive fronts and a top-15 program that is currently on a drastically different wavelength from the team in white. Ole Miss is now 3-6 on the season. It has won most of the games it is supposed to win and have lost all of the ones in which the Rebels appeared inferior on paper.

But it is the alarming and eerily similar manner in which Ole Miss continues to lose games that has bred frustration and concern about the long-term direction of a program trying to find its footing after being hit with a half-decade long NCAA colonoscopy. 

The Rebels are disjointed mess offensively. Through nine games, they have no identity. No crux, core function or niche to fall back on. Rich Rodriguez’s offense mustered 129 yards of offense in the first half despite only trailing 10-7. The unit was 3-of-15 on third-down conversion attempts and threw the football for just 99 yards I the game.  For the last three games, Rodriguez has aimlessly rotated two quarterbacks in John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral, one of whom possesses elite quickness and speed, but cannot throw adequately enough for opposing defenses to view it as a threat. The other, Corral,  has never really gotten into a rhythm because he has rarely been on the field for the last six weeks, has accuracy issues of his own and appears to be an odd fit in the scheme as a whole.

On this night, Rodriguez elected to go solely with Plumlee in the second half after sprinkling in a pair of Corral series midway through the second quarter because Plumlee was having trouble completing short-to-intermediate passes and was being swallowed up rushing the ball. Neither quarterback found success and neither strategy work. Plumlee finished 11-of-21 for 86 yards and the interception that sealed the game’s fate. He rushed 17 times for 92 yards and a score.

Corral was 3-of-6 for 13 yards in the handful of snaps he did play in the first half. Rodriguez cited a lack of possessions in the second half for Corral remaining on the sideline. The Rebels had four second-half drives and trailed the entire time.

The issue with the second-half strategy Rodriguez deployed — going solely with Plumlee — is that opposing defenses do not respect Plumlee’s arm. They dare him to throw the football, and more often than, not are rewarded for coaxing him into such a challenge. The Tigers boast one of the best defensive fronts in the sport. They didn’t need to load the box to stop a predictable Ole Miss rushing attack but were afforded the luxury of doing so anyway because of the Rebels’ inability to complete a basic forward pass. They rushed 42 times for 167 yards, good for four yards per carry. On the surface, that seems adequate, but it rings hollow when contrasted with the 99 passing yards in an SEC game.

The receivers struggled to get open. Braylon Sanders has been hampered with a hamstring injury and has only played in half the team’s games. Elijah Moore has been the one constant, but there isn’t a consistent threat on the outside has yet to emerge. It’s a two-way street though. The quarterbacks’ inaccuracies and the choppy nature in which they are rotated have stunted the development of a young receiving corps.

“It’s awful,” an exasperated Rodriguez said of the passing attack. “I am not happy with it. We didn’t score enough points to win a game. We needed seven points and we didn’t get it done.”

The bottom line is this: Ole Miss doesn’t throw the football well enough to win games. Its rushing attack falls victim to the passing woes by way of predictability and one-dimensionality

“I have to see what we can do and what we can execute,” Rodriguez said. “At this point, you aren’t going to redo all of your schemes. The passes we missed today, we have completed pretty well and easily in practice. I will watch the final and get better.”

So, about that taxed defense. The group was on the field for 90 plays and nearly 37 minutes of game action. Mike McIntyre’s unit has its share of issues, but performed admirably in this game, as it has in most. The improvement from a season ago should be commended. The Rebels held Auburn to two touchdowns, created a turnover and forced five field goal attempts — three of which Tigers’ kicker Anders Carlson missed, keeping the Rebels within striking distance.

But Auburn did amass 507 yards of offense and converted 12-of-21 third-down conversions. The Rebels have struggled to get off the field on third down. They entered the contest only getting off the field 36.8 percent of the time, good for 10th in the SEC and 55th nationally. The offense going three-and-out so often contributes to that. Fatigue sets in. Depth is still limited.

“You can see how hard those kids fought, how hard they competed and tried,” MacIntyre said. “I wish we could’ve gotten them off the field a little quicker at the end.”

MacIntyre is referring to an occurrence that has manifested itself in each of the team’s last two road losses. They have come up one stop short. Missouri salted away the last seven minutes of the game three weeks ago. Auburn had a chance to play keep away for the last five minutes. The Rebels were able to get the ball back to their offense, but only after allowing third-down conversions of eight and nine yards that forced Ole Miss to burn all three of its timeouts and left the offense with just 1:20 on the clock and 65 yards to go. 

But can you fault them after playing 90 snaps?

“They didn’t look tired,” MacIntyre said. “Those kids were flying around and really trying. Even the one they converted, we walked it up pretty good. Ninety plays is a lot. I just wish we had gotten them off the field sooner.”

What do all of these losses amount to? More evidence for a frustrated and increasingly apathetic fan base to point to with regard the competence of Luke and this staff. Ole Miss has been close in a lot of games. In a vacuum, it’s hard to fault the Rebels for this loss. But this defeat fit the profile of most of the other six losses — four of which have come to very average and beatable competition.

Luke often speaks of the young offensive foundation they’ve laid with Jerrion Ealy, Moore, the two quarterbacks and so on. He should get credit for that. He’s done as well as he could as far a replenishing talent to an offense that lost a lot of skill production from a season ago. But the fact remains: Ole Miss is a disjointed mess without an identity on the offensive side, and it is costing them results in a bottom-line industry.

“I am really disappointed for our kids,” Luke said. “They fought their guts out.”

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