Notes and thoughts from a 20-14 loss at No. 11 Auburn …

Back when Ed Orgeron was still on head coach training wheels at Ole Miss he never had a major SEC win. He was only 3-21 against the league, those wins coming against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State at times when none in that trio was at its best.

Ed had a knack for coming close though, whether it was against Alabama and LSU in 2006, Alabama in 2007 or maybe another game or two.

I took to calling those games Signature Losses. You obviously couldn’t call them Signature Wins, but it seemed like some level of value needed to be assigned to games like that.

And like this. This game had a Signature Loss feel about it.

It will be a game that at the end of this month new Ole Miss chancellor Glenn Boyce will use to show improvement in the program as Luke is retained as head coach.

At least that’s what I think will happen.

And Boyce, in making that statement, will be correct.

If you’ve followed along with me on this merry journey you know I’ve said I thought Luke this season needed to show that the program was trending up.

It’s not so much about wins this season as it is about showing improvement and competing.

That’s always been my take on the administration’s perception of Ole Miss football in 2019. I believe that’s what it was when Ross Bjork was the AD, and I believe that to be the case with Boyce.

Things can always change, but I think change, in this case, would only come if the losses were painfully lop-sided, and Luke was unable to sell the message of improvement.

That isn’t what happened last night.

What happened was a frightening performance on offense for most of the night as neither running quarterback John Rhys Plulmlee nor passing quarterback Matt Corral were able to find a rhythm against a very good defense. Finally in the fourth quarter Plumlee was able to hit some passes and move the chains. Was that because Auburn got a little winded? Perhaps. The Tigers were certainly dominant for three quarters.

The Rebels were unable to make big plays on offense at the big moments, but there was another side to the game. The defense, in a bend but don’t break performance, gave the Rebels a chance to win. Auburn gained more than 500 yards, but through a series of strong defensive possessions when Auburn had crossed the 50 Ole Miss stayed in the game.

Whether it was a turnover with Auburn approaching the goal line or getting a stop on third down the defense kept Auburn from securing the game.

It was uncanny that Ole Miss trailed just 10-7 at halftime after having been outgained 315-129.

And when the Tigers inched out to a 20-7 lead in the third quarter it just seemed like they were about to pull away. During that same time frame Ole Miss managed only 31 yards on its first two second-half possessions.

But Auburn never did pull away, and the Rebels pulled it together for one impressive 91-yard drive that changed the complexion of the game.

Plumlee was 4-for-5 passing on the drive, one of those a 25-yard gain to Jarod “Snoop” Conner that had another 15 tacked on after Auburn’s late hit.

Conner had an impressive 6-yard run inside the 10 and would eventually score from the 1.

Suddenly the complexion of the game changed.

The Ole Miss defense that had fought so hard for so long, that had bent but hadn’t broken, needed only one more stop to give its offense a chance to win that game.

That stop eventually came, but when it did the Rebels had no timeouts with just 1:14 to play.

Plumlee hit a 33-yard pass to Braylon Sanders, but it was wiped out by holding. He came back and hit Sanders for 17, and the Rebels were moving, but ultimately the chance for a Signature Win vanished when these two teams reverted to what they are. Auburn, a team with a dynamic defense and a pedestrian offense, made a defensive play against an Ole Miss team that is still trying to figure out how to win a close game.

Ole Miss only had four possessions in the second half, and Plumlee played every snap.

While “Remember Auburn” may become a battle cry to show improvement in the Ole Miss program it may also be the game that propels Corral into the transfer portal. Maybe not. There are three games left for Ole Miss to figure out where Corral fits in its quarterback picture, but when you need to cover 69 yards with 1:14 left with no timeouts and you give the ball to your running quarterback that’s a telling statement.

Rich Rodriguez told us after the game he wanted to get Corral in after halftime, but the lack of possessions made that hard. Plus he liked what Plumlee had gotten done late in the second quarter on a 23-yard drive after Elijah Moore’s 55-yard punt return. Plumlee scored on a 4-yard run just before the half.

The bottom line is quarterbacks want to play, and you can only play one at a time. Even if Corral had played equal time at Auburn, even if he’d have been on the field at the end, there would no doubt be some serious reassessment going on for him as part of a two-QB system.

Maybe both of these guys are on the roster next August. Time will tell.

Had the Rebels gone three-and-out on their third second-half possession – the one in which Plumlee led a 91-yard drive – I suspect you’d have seen Corral after that.

So as Ole Miss heads into the second weekend in November with just three wins and anticipating a sparse gathering for a home game against New Mexico State is there obvious improvement?

I think you have to say yes. The Rebels haven’t beaten an SEC team not named Vanderbilt or Arkansas since the 2017 Egg Bowl. They’ve lost six games this season and three-straight, but these last three losses – to Missouri, Texas A&M and No. 11 Auburn – have been by an average margin of eight points.

The last time Ole Miss played at Auburn it trailed 35-3 at halftime. The Rebels lost to this team 31-16 in Oxford last year, and it really wasn’t that close.

Nobody likes to hear words like patience and inexperience, and in some ways – like the development of the passing game – the improvement really isn’t obvious.

But if this season is really about playing hard and competing, about putting more distance between the program and NCAA sanctions, well, the Rebels are doing that.

At this point in time Ole Miss can continue to sell the message of hope, but next season hope without wins may fall on deaf ears.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Twitter: @parrishalford

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