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UT Martin is a tune-up game for Ole Miss

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The Rebels could work on some glitches from Week 1.

South Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

After a much-needed morale boost against South Alabama to open the season, Ole Miss heads into their Week 2 match-up against Tennessee-Martin under much less pressure.

The Skyhawks are coming off a convincing 36-point shutout against Clarion, which is apparently the name of a Division II school. The last time these two teams played in 2015, the Rebels won 76-3, and while that score probably won’t be replicated Saturday, there’s not a ton of reason to think this one’s gonna be much more competitive.

Ole Miss’ talent advantage alone is enough to overwhelm UT Martin, and even if the game is off to a slow start, one would expect the dam to inevitably break, as it did against USA. That doesn’t make what’s hopefully a cupcake game meaningless, though.

While it’s impulsive to consider any kind of preview for a game against an FCS opponent a futile task, the Rebels have issues to address. It’s not about fixing the irreparable, either. We knew watching the defense would be a nerve-wracking experience. Interim Head Coach Matt Luke (wow, that still feels weird to type) has a chance to firmly establish the team’s identity before the schedule gets tougher with road trips to Berkeley and Tuscaloosa.

Ole Miss should try to emphasize balance.

Excluding garbage time, the offense ran the ball just 33 percent of the time last Saturday, compared to 44 percent in all of 2016. While Shea Patterson may have elected to throw on a handful of snaps that could have been equally viable running plays, they weren’t super effective the few times they did hit the ground.

Phil Longo’s group was just fine in terms of rushing success rate (50 percent), but the backs didn’t do a lot when they got to the second level, averaging just 4.9 per carry. The Rebels shouldn’t bang their heads against a wall if the run game isn’t working, but they’ll lose a good bit of leverage against better defenses if they aren’t forced to respect both sides of the run-pass option.

The defense needs to generate turnovers.

It’s looking like Wesley McGriff was unable to perform a miracle over the offseason and significantly improve this unit, and that’s just fine. The defense wasn’t going to suddenly be good from an efficiency standpoint, but there was a reasonable amount of hope that they’d turn up the aggression and force some takeaways.

The ceiling for this group is pretty low, so it’s not out of the question that they’d make a priority out of killing opposing teams’ rhythm and setting the offense up with great field position. South Alabama managed to put together a 19-play, 95-yard drive, so they still have work to do.

While losing the turnover margin to a Sun Belt team isn’t great, it’s too early to declare this plan a pipe dream. Usual agents of chaos Marquis Haynes and Demarquis Gates were unusually quiet, combining for just four tackles. It’s hard to see that happening again.

Shea Patterson should take more deep shots.

It’s hard to a nitpick a 435-yard, four-touchdown performance, but the stud quarterback didn’t reveal himself to be a huge threat as a downfield passer. A.J. Brown did the majority of the work on his two 70+ yard scores, and Shea missed a wide-open DaMarkus Lodge down the sideline by five yards at one point. Outside of those two touchdowns to A.J., he averaged just 10.8 yards per completion.

Chad Kelly’s brief time at Ole Miss highlighted the value of stretching the defense, and Patterson has plenty of time to prove he’s got a similar arm. It’s a small sample size, and he doesn’t bear nearly the same limitations as a guy like Jalen Hurts does, who relied on passes behind the line of scrimmage more than any other power conference QB last year.

Perhaps any success against UT Martin should be taken with a grain of salt, but the same should be said about any hiccups that a young team experiences. They should get better over time, but so will the teams they face.