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Ole Miss’ defense showed improvement against Texas Tech. Will it last?

The Rebels avoided giving up the big plays that killed them last season.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Few would argue that Ole Miss’ explosive offense was the highlight of Saturday’s thrashing of Texas Tech—when you gain more than nine yards per play and light up the scoreboard, you’re going to be the main story.

Just as—if not more—encouraging, however, was the underrated performance of the defense. Sure, Tech racked up nearly 500 yards of offense and scored 27 points, but there were significant signs that the Rebel D has taken a step forward from last year’s ineptitude. Even with a ton of turnover at the offensive skill positions, the Red Raiders were expected to hang with Jordan Ta’amu and friends (the Vegas line initially favored Tech). Instead, the Rebels hunkered down enough to make an impression on the final score, serving as a good enough complement to Phil Longo’s terrifying offensive unit.

To say that the defense has undergone some sort of transformation may be a bit much, but their approach on Saturday shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Ole Miss played textbook bend-don’t-break defense against Texas Tech.

The most apparent sign of progress may be that the Landsharks allowed just three gains of 20 or more yards (they averaged six per game in 2017).

McGriff may not have the personnel to shut down offenses entirely, and they struggled somewhat from an efficiency standpoint (Texas Tech’s offense had a 42 percent success rate). Still, they prevented the Red Raiders from consistently turning yardage into six points, ultimately forcing them into panic mode late in the game.

Tech’s two field goals came on drives that combined for 20 plays and nearly eight minutes of game clock. They also committed a turnover on downs to end each of their final three drives, which totaled another 33 plays and 11 precious minutes. Ole Miss proved that when they don’t give up big plays, a favorable third or fourth down will eventually come.

The defense made tackles in space and limited Tech’s damage on the ground.

Perhaps the most glaring issue for last year’s defense was their tendency to allow huge gains in the running game. The Rebel defense ranked 100th nationally in rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays), giving up 245 rushing yards per game last season.

An almost completely fresh room of linebackers left fans unsure of whether that problem would really subside in 2018, but Saturday’s performance is a promising sign.

Ole Miss gave up only two runs of 15 or more yards (and none of 20 or more), and allowed just 3.2 highlight yards per opportunity (which measures what the runner does once he gets to the second level). From a highlight yards perspective, this is better than any game from 2017. Remember when they got gashed for more than 200 yards rushing by UT-Martin?

Tech running back Da’Leon Ward was still overall efficient against the Landsharks, gaining five or more yards on 47 percent of his carries. When Ole Miss gets into SEC play, they’ll be facing backs who can better take advantage of opportunities at the second level, so limiting those chances will be critical.

Ole Miss generated some much-needed negative plays to kill drives.

The bend-don’t-break blueprint is only effective if the defense eventually makes a play and puts the offense in a bind. Texas Tech was generally fine on early downs, but the lack of big plays meant that it often took just one misstep to blow a possession.

While the Rebels never recorded a sack, they still tallied eight tackles for loss, seven of which came on busted runs. On the six drives that involved a negative play, Tech averaged just 1.7 points and only scored one touchdown. True freshman quarterback Alan Bowman was backed into obvious passing situations on nearly half of his throws, which helps explain his paltry 5.6 yards per attempt.

The expected retort to any praise of the defense is that they faced what may end up being a mediocre team. Still, this kind of designed success against any level of competition rarely happened last season. Aware of the support they had from their scary-as-hell offensive counterpart, the Ole Miss D looked like a different group from the year before. Time will tell if any of it sticks against stronger competition.