Five minutes into the third quarter of a blowout win over Louisiana-Monroe, the future of Ole Miss football took the snap. With two of his offensive linemen swinging to the left on pull blocks, Matt Corral stuck the ball into the gut of his running back and eyed the intentionally unblocked ULM defensive end. The play was a read-option, meaning the star freshman quarterback had a decision to make: hand the ball off to his running back if the D-end stayed outside or keep it himself if the D-end crashed down. The wrong read could leave Corral completely exposed with a 240-pound defender charging at him.
The Ole Miss football program will find itself at a crossroads next season. Barring a dramatic turnaround over the next six games, head coach Matt Luke will enter 2019 on the hot seat—a fanbase tired of watching its team blown away by top competition seemed to reach a tipping point after last week’s humiliating loss in Baton Rouge. Making matters worse, Luke will lose the majority of his top offensive talent, including starting QB Jordan Ta’amu. Corral, a top-100 prospect in the 2018 recruiting class and one of the highest profile quarterbacks to ever sign with the Rebels, may be the best hope for keeping the program afloat.
Corral made the right read. As the ULM D-end followed the action inside, Corral pulled the ball away from his running back and took off around the right side. Having entered the game at the start of the second half, this was his first real opportunity to show why he’d been ranked the No. 63 overall prospect in the country. He’d thrown just two passes to this point in the season, both late in the fourth quarter against Southern-Illinois. With six straight conference games closing out this year’s schedule, the ULM game offered the Ole Miss coaches perhaps their final opportunity to get Corral meaningful game reps.
By the time the D-end realized what was happening, Corral was already by him, gobbling up green with long, graceful strides. A safety had crashed down and put himself in perfect position to cut the play off, but with a sidestep so smooth it was almost imperceivable, Corral was racing down the sideline by himself. He held the ball aloft as he cruised into the end zone for the second of three touchdowns on the day.
For a Rebel fanbase desperate for any sign of program momentum, Corral’s near-perfect performance on Saturday was significant. He finished the day 10-for-10 passing, showing off quick decision-making, pinpoint accuracy and the arm strength to push the ball downfield. On his opening drive, he fired a missile 30-yards downfield into a tiny window along the sideline. On the very next play, a linebacker made a great read on a swing route by running back Scotty Phillips, but a perfectly lofted touch pass from Corral allowed Phillips to make the grab at full speed and motor around the corner for a TD.
Corral added 78 rushing yards on six carries, showing off a smooth athleticism that should allow Luke to make the read-option a larger part of the offense next season.
Of course, Rebel fans will be wary of putting stock into a beatdown against a bad Sun Belt team. We’ve routinely seen offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s group blast weak opponents only to look lost against top defenses. In Longo’s six games against opponents ranked top 20 in defensive S&P+, his offense has averaged just 17.3 points per game and 5.2 yards per play.
In addition to Ta’amu, the Rebels will lose all three of their star receivers next season, including likely first rounders A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf. Stud left tackle Greg Little will join them in the first round, one of three starting offensive linemen departing this offseason. If Luke can’t score on top defenses with all of those guys on the field, what’s going to happen when they leave?
Corral’s performance on Saturday provides hope. Hope that a group of talented but raw youngsters can make up for the boatload of departures. Hope that this offense will still be fun to watch. Hope that the entire program won’t buckle under the weight of NCAA vengeance and sink into Houston Nutt-level misery.
Early in the fourth quarter against ULM, Corral faked a handoff and fired a dart to fellow true freshman Elijah Moore, a four-star wideout who will be tasked with taking over as the top receiving threat next season. Moore looped around the corner and turned on the jets, roasting a safety on his way to the end zone. It was a glimpse at the program’s future; two exciting young playmakers linking up for a touchdown. If Ole Miss is going to stay afloat next season, it’ll need to be the first of many.