Notes and thoughts on the Rebels’ 31-17 win over Arkansas …
What a difference a week makes.
Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was confident he’d see noticeable improvement on offense from the Rebels’ 15-10 loss at Memphis to the second game, and he did.
Watching the Rebels try to move the ball against Memphis I wasn’t sure they’d score 31 points in three games much less one, but Week 2 showed a more confident Rich Rodriguez in calling plays, and a more efficient group of players in executing them.
It also showed something that will be very important if the Rebels are to be an improved football team by season’s end, and that’s consistency in the defense.
As impressive as the Rebels were defensively against an experienced Memphis offense it was still one game, an isolated incident I sometimes call such things. Against Arkansas strong defense became a trend and has now become an expectation.
However, it was offense where the Rebels had to make the leap, and they did.
I mentioned during the week that Ole Miss and Arkansas were evenly matched teams, but it didn’t look that way last night.
The Rebels in the second half twice fumbled on the Arkansas end of the field, mistakes that will be costly against better teams. This time, though, Ole Miss scored 31 points in spite of those fumbles.
Take away Matt Corral’s bobble at the Arkansas 29 on the Rebels’ first third-quarter possession, and it’s likely that drive ends with points.
Same for the Octavious Cooley fumble in the early minutes of the fourth quarter. The Rebels were up 17-3 and driving, looking like it was about to become 24-3, but Cooley was stripped by Arkansas defensive back Kamren Curl, one of several Razorbacks around him trying to force the fumble. It was also Curl who returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.
It breathed life into the Razorbacks who had not been able to sustain much offense against the Ole Miss defense. It was the kind of “weird” we’ve seen in this series many times in recent years. For starters, I’m not sure how Cooley ended up in position to take an ill-advised lateral from Corral. It looked like a bit of dangerous freelance by Corral, but that part of the play was complete and had nothing to do with the actual fumble.
Corral showed a little more fearlessness last night after he broke a sweat, and he’s going to have to protect the ball better.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the stadium who wondered if things were about to unravel for the Rebels after Curl’s big play, but the offense that struggled so mightily at Memphis responded with a 46-yard Corral-to-Elijah Moore touchdown on the next possession to regain the two-touchdown advantage. Nice play by Moore there as he did some nifty things in the open field to get to the end zone.
That was huge, and it showed a certain mentality for this team, a fighting spirit, that will serve it well in weeks to come.
RichRod’s play-calling featured the run game almost 70 percent of the time (53 rushes on 77 snaps), but Moore was a huge part of the plan, and Corral, after some sketchy throws early settled down to complete 16 of 24 attempts. They weren’t all perfect passes, but these Ole Miss receivers had better get used to catching balls that aren’t perfect. It’s part of their job, and they did better with that later in the game.
Behind an offensive line that has some issues Corral was sacked three times, but he was often on the move and that that took some pressure off the line.
There was more pre-snap movement as well, and that also helped.
Through August I occasionally mentioned the running back depth for this team, but that’s always come with an asterisk, as two of those backs are freshmen in Jerrion Ealy and Jarod Conner.
That depth showed up last night, though, as Ealy was effective on the perimeter, mostly with short passes, and Conner rushed for 42 yards on eight carries, and had a 25-yard run late when the Rebels were trying to close it out.
It was Corral and Scottie Phillips, though, who showed what the RichRod offense will look like when it’s functioning well.
Phillips had 143 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, and Corral was much more involved in the run game himself with 46 yards on 10 carries.
Defensively, I was very impressed with what the Rebels got done against Rakeem Boyd who I think is a very good running back.
Boyd had 107 yards in one half against Ole Miss last year, but almost 70 of that came on one play, and without having the film in front of me, I would believe that somewhere the Rebels were out of position.
They were mostly assignment-sound for the second-straight game last night, and tackling was solid again.
There were times in the game when Boyd looked like he was building momentum and was about to be a bigger factor, but it was a struggle for him last night. The play that stands out to me was the big hit from Austrian Robinson on a fourth-and-2 in the third quarter. Robinson made the initial contact, and a linebacker came in and helped finish the job to get the ball back to the Rebels after Boyd had gains of 10, 8 and 5 yards earlier in the drive.
Boyd finished with 67 yards and 3.9 yards per carry, and that’s a win for Ole Miss.
It’s unfortunate that Mohamed Sanogo injured his ankle on special teams less than a minute into the game and will be out for a while, but the night Jacquez Jones had showed the depth we believe the Rebels have at inside linebacker.
Jones had a team-high nine tackles.
The Rebels as a team ahd 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and seven pressures.
Outside linebacker Luke Knox in limited snaps again showed up around a big play with a fumble recovery to kill an Arkansas drive.
Outside backers Qaadir Sheppard and Sam Williams played well in the same game, something this team is going to need moving forward.
Sheppard in the third quarter hit Arkansas quarterback Nick Starkel so hard on one play that I was surprised Starkel stayed in the game.
Reserve outside backer Charles Wiley had a nice game for Ole Miss. He was active in the Arkansas backfield.
I thought the secondary looked very physical and did a good job of breaking on the ball. Reserve safety Armani Linton had another nice pass break-up and is playing with confidence.
Still waiting for this group to record it’s first interception though. There were a couple of chances last night.
All in all the Rebels needed to be at least 1-1 after the first two games to keep goals on the table, and they’ve achieved that.
They should be 2-1 this week after Southeastern Louisiana, and the Cal game the following week will be a big one in the life of this team.