OXFORD • Ole Miss has made dramatic early gains with its run defense in the first season of a new 3-4 scheme under coordinator Mike MacIntyre.
The Rebels go into their Saturday visit to No. 2 Alabama having held three-straight opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Ole Miss, which allowed 245.3 rushing yards a game in 2017 and 221.8 per game last year, right now is fourth in the SEC and 25th in America with 94.8 rushing yards per game allowed.
Improvement in pass defense has been less noticeable, and the Rebels face a tall task this week in trying to slow down Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and a talented group of receivers.
In last week’s 28-20 loss to then-No. 23 California, the Rebels allowed 373 passing yards to a team that was averaging less than 160 passing yards through its first three games.
“We had a couple of situations where the quarterback scrambled, we were kind of on the guys, jumped some routes, they broke loose, and he made a couple of good throws off of that,” MacIntyre said.
That ability to extend plays is a Tagovailoa trademark.
In his 19 starts at Alabama, the Crimson Tide have totaled 5,591 passing yards with 69 passing touchdowns and is averaging 46.5 points.
Getting off the field was an issue for the Rebels last week as Cal was 6 for 12 on third-down conversions but was 4 for 6 on third downs of 9-plus yards.
The Bears were 7 for 10 passing for 141 yards on third down.
One Cal drive was extended on a third-and-7 with a pass interference call against sophomore cornerback Keidron Smith.
“If we could have made two other third-down stops where they miss a throw or we don’t have an interference call on one of them, then I think it’s a whole different football game for us on defense,” MacIntyre said.
They did end one Cal drive with an interception by freshman backup cornerback Deantre Prince, the first of his career.
Rated a three-star prospect by most recruiting services, Prince, a Charleston native, has seen his playing time increase lately.
He’s an excellent player, an excellent athlete, extremely fast. He’s really starting to learn the game at corner. He has a lot of tools to be an excellent corner,” MacIntyre said.
Through four games Ole Miss is ranked No. 114 out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards 288.5 per game allowed.
MacIntyre is hoping more effective pass pressure will limit Tagovailoa’s ability to extend plays. The Rebels had erratic success against Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who often was available to reach his third progression or beyond.
MacIntyre hopes a mix of pressure and deception can slow down Tagovailoa.
“You’ve got to try to disguise coverages a little bit. You’ve got to try to harass him with the pass rush, but a lot of the things they do, a lot of their big plays are coming on first and second downs off RPOs,” he said. “We’ve got to throw him off rhythm and be able to attack him a little bit if we can.”