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Ole Miss vs. Cal will be pure insanity

Matt Luke faces his first real challenge against a Golden Bear squad with something to prove.

Weber State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Considering the quality of opponents the Rebels have faced so far, Saturday’s contest in Berkeley serves as a true litmus test for a team that’s looked promising, but volatile.

While Ole Miss turned in overall solid performances against South Alabama and UT Martin, they revealed patterns, particularly on defense, that may not bode so well for when the competition gets stiffer.

Similarly, the Golden Bears’ 2-0 start shows something of a mixed bag. They kicked off the season with an eye-opening road win against a North Carolina team in reset mode, followed by a win over FCS school Weber State that required a fourth quarter surge.

Because the program is in transition, it’s not entirely fair to set high expectations in Justin Wilcox’s first year. That doesn’t make them any less of a threat to an Ole Miss team experiencing far greater internal disarray.

It doesn’t take much convincing to decide that, given the styles of play involved, this is gonna be a fun, pointsy affair. With the NCAA cloud continuing to bum Rebel fans out, they could probably use the distraction.

Cal’s offense is a potentially scary match-up for Ole Miss.

Honestly, most teams on the Rebels’ schedule will be considered a threat to their shaky defense, but the Golden Bears boast the right set of attributes to give them an especially hard time.

Given his background at Eastern Washington, new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin seems a natural fit with Berkeley’s pass-first culture. Through two games, though, he’s discovered an explosive running game that he may want to ride on Saturday. Cal ranks 25th in rushing IsoPPP, a frightening mark for a Rebel defense that’s given up big runs to much weaker competition than the Bears.

Despite losing Tre Watson for the season, they still have dangerous options in Vic Enwere and breakout candidate Patrick Laird, who’s averaging 13.3 yards per carry on the season (this is fine).

It’s entirely possible that they have a field day through the air, too. Cal didn’t enter 2017 with a ton of returning production in the passing game, but it would totally make sense for QB Ross Bowers and former five-star receiver Demetris Robertson to show out against Ole Miss. Baldwin is fully capable of taking advantage of the Rebels’ tendency to bring pressure by isolating the defenders left in coverage.

Good news! Cal’s defense may be just as bad as the Rebels’.

While it didn’t show up on the scoreboard, both of the Golden Bears’ opponents won the efficiency battle by a decent margin, indicated by the Bears’ defensive success rate of 49 percent (118th nationally). Weber State put up 571 total yards of offense, but only put up 20 points due to three fumbles.

Cal may have benefited from some turnover luck, but they’ve also done a decent job of preventing explosive plays and keeping offenses from finishing drives, ranking in the top 45 in both categories.

Their defensive inefficiency is encouraging for an Ole Miss offense that ranks eighth in success rate (58 percent), but it may not be enough for the Rebels to move the ball consistently. They have to get their athletes in space and generate big gains to contend in what will likely be a shootout. Shea Patterson and A.J. Brown have clearly been lighting up the box score, but whether their success is remotely sustainable remains to be seen.

This could be the first game of several in which Ole Miss’ lack of offensive balance comes back to haunt them. Phil Longo’s unit ranks dead last among FBS teams in terms of how often they run the ball on standard downs. That tendency obviously hasn’t hampered their production so far, but it may start to matter against better defenses that require fewer bodies in the box.

Playing the Golden Bears is the first step in knowing significantly more about this group’s potential under Matt Luke. Whatever happens won’t necessarily define the season, but it’ll help in deciding what the team’s legitimate strengths and weaknesses are going into SEC play.