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Ole Miss’ defense played just well enough against Memphis

While the Tigers put together a few maddening drives on Saturday, the defense did its job for the most part.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The 48-28 final score of the Ole Miss-Memphis game shouldn’t surprise anyone. It was expected that Memphis would be able to put up points on a Rebel defense still finding its way. How they put up those points was a bit unsettling, though. The third quarter’s sudden tightening of the lead demonstrated just how shaky the defense can be when Chad Kelly and his demigod receivers aren’t steadily exuding fire emojis on the offensive end. There’s certainly reason to be some combination of nervous and excited about Dave Wommack’s squad going forward, but every down of Saturday’s contest needs to be put in its proper context.

First, a few metric definitions:

Success rate, or efficiency, is a way of measuring how well the offense stays on schedule each down. Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down.

Havoc rate is the number of total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total defensive plays.

Memphis was surprisingly efficient and balanced.

Considering their reliance on explosive plays so far this season, I was looking for the Tigers to blow the top off of the Rebels’ back line a few times to get into the end zone. Instead, they were efficient—their 45 percent success rate against the Rebels outperformed their season average of 42 percent. On top of that, they had considerably more success on the ground this game, topping their season average run efficiency by five percent against what was the toughest defensive front they’d seen so far.

What makes it worse is that Memphis didn’t experience the same field position advantage they were enjoying before Week 5. The Tigers’ touchdown drives averaged 80 yards, including one that started at their own one-yard line. Despite the fact that they benefited from a few fortuitous penalties (minus the targeting, which was Ole Miss’ own fault), it should raise some concerns that Memphis was able to methodically put together a few drives with ease. If it’s any consolation, the 99-yard drive took five minutes of game time, so maybe the defense is learning how to run the clock out (I contemplated ending this sentence with a question mark).

The defense fed off the offense’s success.

Ole Miss was significantly better at shutting down Memphis’s offense when the drive followed a Rebel touchdown or field goal, giving up just one score in seven of these series (not including the first-quarter pick-six). Typically, it would be easy to find some direct causation involved here, as any defense is going to play better when given more time to rest. There wasn’t a huge difference in terms of average drive length though, as Ole Miss’s scoring drives took on average 2:42 off the game clock, compared to 2:06 for the other series (excluding the one that ended the game). This fluctuation in defensive performance based on offensive production is more just indicative of an overall streaky Rebel squad that can rapidly alter the scoreboard in either team’s favor.

The defensive backs showed signs of the Landshark secondaries of old.

While Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson was occasionally able to take advantage of a young Ole Miss secondary, he couldn’t do it consistently enough, partly because of their ability to generate chaos throughout the game. The Rebel defense posted an overall havoc rate of 23 percent, a massive improvement from their season average of 12 percent. The majority of this can be attributed to the secondary, which put up a season best 15 percent havoc rate thanks to a couple of picks, a few pass deflections and some open field tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Last year’s secondary led the nation in havoc rate at 10 percent.

The defensive line deserves credit as well for forcing a fumble and producing a beautiful, Piesman-worthy interception, but they didn’t look themselves at times, struggling to finish on quarterback pressures and failing to blow up runs like in past games.

It’s naive at this point to believe this defense will be efficient on a play-by-play basis, but with an opportunistic defensive line and secondary causing mayhem and forcing mistakes, it could end up complimenting the Rebel offense rather well.