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Ole Miss’ defense was left hung out to dry against Cal

On a night when the usual stars couldn’t deliver, the defense held their own.

Mississippi v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At this point, every bit of the Rebels’ 11-point defeat to the California Golden Bears that made it especially miserable has been covered to the point of exhaustion. The offense disappeared after some early bursts of points, and penalties both murdered the team’s rhythm and piled on significant yardage.

The sole bright spot that Ole Miss fans can reflect on is a defense that held their own for much of the game, suggesting that they may have progressed from the doldrums of 2016.

Considering this unit’s recent struggles, one wouldn’t expect them to be able to endure a ton of snaps without eventually breaking down. That belief was shaken Saturday night, as Cal ran 88 plays and put up just 20 points on offense. The only team that’s run more plays against Ole Miss over the past two seasons is Florida State, who ran 93 to produce 45 points and 580 yards.

The defense’s performance was, tragically, an afterthought due to the all the offensive stagnation. Their showing out isn’t necessarily an indication of what’s to come, but has to be acknowledged nonetheless.

This game was supposed to be a shootout.

If you told me heading into the game that Wesley McGriff’s group would hunker down like this, I’d assume they’d win comfortably.

The culture of the two programs had led many to believe before a single down was played that this would be a high-scoring affair (oops). Cal’s shaky defensive outing against Weber State, combined with the Rebels’ firepower in the passing game, formed enough supporting evidence for some fans, including myself, to invest heavily in this idea. If the defense could get enough stops so as to not erase offensive production, they’d be just fine.

Instead, the Landsharks turned in a vintage display of aggression and arguably their best game in recent memory against a Power 5 opponent. Here’s how their numbers against Cal compare to this group’s 2016 averages.

Points Success Rate Yards per Play
Points Success Rate Yards per Play
2016 Power 5 Opponents 35.4 44% 6.4
2017 Cal 20 35% 4.5

Sadly, it was all for naught. Ole Miss’ sputtering offense gifted Cal enough opportunities to make up for any inefficiencies. It’s still worth exploring what exactly the defense did markedly better in Berkeley.

The defense held their ground on early downs.

Through two games, Ole Miss had shown an ability to shut down opposing drives early, but it didn’t necessarily mean anything because of the level of competition. That pattern continued against the Golden Bears, though. Four of their five drives that ended in a punt were three-and-outs, and the other punt came after only six plays.

On these five possessions, the Rebels held Cal to an average gain of two yards on first and second down - the hard part was over with once third and long came around. When the early aggression didn’t pay off, they managed to limit the damage more often than not. The Golden Bears had drives of nine and twelve plays that ended in missed field goals, as well as two drives that ended in end zone picks (one of which was a Hail Mary before halftime).

While Cal generated twelve explosive plays, that was largely a function of how long they were on the field. The defense showed some leakiness early on this season when trying to contain the run, particularly against UT Martin, but they limited Patrick Laird to just 3.5 yards per carry. They’ve progressed from a dreadful 121st in Rushing IsoPPP in 2016 to a simply poor 95th this year, and frankly, any improvement in this regard is welcome.

Even as questions remain about the defense (and the team in general), they’ve come a long way, and their performance shouldn’t be overshadowed by Saturday’s general awfulness. It’s too early to tell whether they can keep it up, but it’s encouraging to see that a handful of SEC offenses they’ll face remain as assy as ever.