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Ole Miss’ ugly loss to LSU might be a turning point for Matt Luke

An embarrassing trip to Baton Rouge has Luke teetering on the edge of losing the fan base.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In the final minutes of Ole Miss’ sloppy, humiliating loss in Baton Rouge, one of ESPN’s cameras found Matt Luke on the sideline. Beneath a jumble of dark hair slicked down by three and a half hours of misting rain, a soggy expression summed up his team’s performance. The Rebels had just committed their 17th penalty of the night.

Luke and his coaching staff could have been forgiven by fans for losing to a top-five team under the lights of one of college football’s most intimidating venues. But the way Ole Miss lost on Saturday night is inexcusable. It wasn’t just the 45-16 final score. An offense with three NFL first rounders and one of the conference’s better quarterbacks had nearly as many penalty yards (167) as passing yards (178). Two of those penalties handed the ball back to LSU after they tried to punt it away. The country’s most talented receiving corps had at least seven drops. Don’t even bother trying to count the missed tackles.

Undisciplined. Unmotivated. Unwatchable.

“I thought [we had] just uncharacteristic penalties,” Luke muttered in his postgame press conference. “That’s probably what I’m most disappointed in. Again, that starts with coaching. It starts with me.”

The Rebel offense caught a delay of game the very first time it lined up. There were false starts and offsides. Late hits and flagrant roughing the passer infractions. There was a face mask that gave LSU the ball back after a fumble. Still down just two scores in the first quarter, Ole Miss handed the Tigers 30 pass interference yards in the span of three plays.

Perhaps the most flummoxing moment of the game came earlier in that same drive. With LSU lining up to punt on fourth-and-one, Luke inexplicably called a timeout. Ed Orgeron took his punt unit off the field and lined up to go for it, then got Ole Miss to jump offside with a hard count. Eight plays later, the Tigers banged it into the end zone to go up 21-3.

An LSU offense that has struggled all season piled up 573 yards, 281 of which came on the ground. Transfer quarterback Joe Burrow, who came into Saturday night with just 7.0 yards per pass attempt and a completion percentage under 50, completed 72 percent of his throws and racked up 11.7 yards per attempt. Wideouts ran uncovered downfield; running backs strolled through gaping holes. One of the country’s worst defenses over the past three seasons seems to somehow be getting worse. It’s hard to imagine defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff keeping his job this offseason.

The ice under offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s feet may be thinning as well. Ole Miss averaged just 4.8 yards per play and 1.3 points per drive in Baton Rouge, bolstering the argument that Longo’s offense only plays well against poor competition. In the year and half since he took over, Ole Miss has averaged 40.4 points per game and 8.0 yards per play against 11 opponents ranked outside the top 60 in defensive S&P+. Against six opponents ranked inside the top 20, those numbers plummet to 17.3 points per game and 5.2 yards per play.

Ole Miss offensive performances ranked by opponent difficulty

Opponent Def. S&P+ rank Points* Yards/play
Opponent Def. S&P+ rank Points* Yards/play
Alabama, 2017 1 3 4.6
Alabama, 2018 1 7 4.2
Auburn, 2017 5 23 5.3
LSU, 2018 10 16 4.8
LSU, 2017 18 24 5.6
Mississippi State, 2017 19 31 6.6
South Alabama, 2017 64 40 8.3
Vanderbilt, 2017 67 55 7.9
Texas A&M, 2017 71 24 5.4
Cal, 2017 79 16 5.7
Texas Tech, 2018 90 40 9.1
Kentucky, 2017 97 37 7.1
Arkansas, 2017 112 37 9.6
Kent State, 2018 121 38 8.7
UL Lafayette, 2017 125 50 8.1
UT Martin, 2017 NR (FCS) 45 8.9
Southern Illinois, 2018 NR (FCS) 62 9.6
*Doesn’t include defensive and special teams touchdowns S&P+ rankings via Bill Connelly

Luke’s deep roots with the Ole Miss program gave him significant capital among fans when he was given the head coach gig last year. He’s a sincere, likable guy whose family has been playing and coaching for the Rebels for generations. But loyalty and personality can only carry him so far. The game in Baton Rouge felt like a potential turning point with a fan base tired of seeing its team embarrassed by upper-tier competition. Ole Miss Twitter is writhing with calls for his firing; the obligatory GoFundMe page has started raising money for his buyout.

It’s hard to imagine the university getting rid of Luke any sooner than the 2019 season, but it feels as though he and his staff are teetering on the edge of losing the fans.