OXFORD • An era ended and another dawned for Ole Miss football at Memphis on the opening weekend.
The “throw first and ask questions later” approach to offense was gone, replaced by a veteran head coach at offensive coordinator who would still favor an up-tempo spread offense while basing everything off the run game.
There were more questions than confidence after Rich Rodriguez’ debut with the Rebels as Ole Miss ran just 53 plays in a 15-10 loss at Memphis.
The Rebels had a couple of 15-plus yard runs after halftime, but the would-be dynamic run game coughed and wheezed to just 80 yards and 2.4 yards per carry.
“We were just trying to find our groove and get into the hang of things, so I don’t think we were frustrated, just disappointed we didn’t execute better and get the win. I think we’ve improved throughout the season,” junior center Eli Johnson said.
Indeed, as the Rebels prepare for rival Mississippi State in Thursday’s Egg Bowl, the run game has vastly improved.
From that wobbly beginning Ole Miss has become the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC, the No. 7 rushing team in the country with 261.5 yards a game.
Three times this season, including against No. 1 LSU, the Rebels surpassed 400 rushing yards in a game.
Much of the yardage can be traced to freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who needs just 11 yards against MSU to reach 1,000 rushing yards for the season.
The improvement can also be traced to an offensive line that began to find that groove in the new system.
The Rebels returned just two starters from a productive 2018 unit.
Depth was scarce and hasn’t really shown itself this season with only two reserves, true freshman tackle Nick Broeker and redshirt freshman guard Jalen Cunningham, getting meaningful snaps.
“I don’t think it was confusing, it was more of a confidence thing. It was a new offense we were running, a lot of new guys on the field. Now we’ve gained confidence in what we’re doing and have a better understanding of things,” sophomore guard Ben Brown said.
Rodriguez had to get to halftime at Memphis before he could change some things that weren’t working.
Even then it was hard to get players to grasp what needed to happen.
“Being the first year in the system, I could see as the games went along that guys were getting more comfortable with the play calls, with the in-game adjustments,” Rodriguez said. “Our in-game adjustments, our adjustments during the week on certain plays happen faster now and are making a lot more sense to our guys.”
That greater understanding has shown itself most in the Rebels’ ability to handle shifting fronts and other pre-snap movement by opposing defenses.
“That’s kind of what got us at Memphis, they did a lot of stunts and different pressure packages and we didn’t necessarily handle that as well as we could have,” Johnson said. “I think just seeing those exotic looks, being able to recognize them and pick them up, we’ve gotten a lot better at that throughout the year.”
The Rebels’ evolving offensive line on Thursday will face an MSU defense that ranks No. 11 in the SEC, No. 62 nationally against the run with 149.5 yards per game allowed.
The Bulldogs held LSU to 86 rushing yards on Oct. 19, Abilene Christian to 27 last week.
The Rebels want to erase the memory of an offense that managed just 189 yards in a 35-3 loss to MSU last year.
The upward trajectory they found after the Memphis game may help them get there.
“I don’t think we second-guessed ourselves,” Brown said. “We knew what kind of football team we were. We knew we had playmakers. As the season went along we got more experience.”