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Ole Miss can use the Southern Illinois game to improve in these 3 areas

This game probably won’t be competitive, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s understandably hard for anyone outside the Ole Miss football program to get up for this weekend’s cupcake game against FCS Southern Illinois. The end result will never be in question, and a strong start to the season in Houston only validates the sense that this Rebels squad is too competent for this game to get interesting.

But if the start to the 2017 season tells you anything, it’s that there’s plenty of opportunity to draw meaning from games like this. Uninspiring wins against South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin revealed that the leaky run defense was going to stick around another year. When glaring issues pop up against the soft part of the schedule, they’re pretty much bound to exacerbate against tougher competition.

Ole Miss’ drubbing of Texas Tech was far from perfect, revealing several key areas of improvement. Here are three things Matt Luke’s team can work on against SIU on Saturday.

1. The defense needs to limit SIU’s running opportunities at the second level.

Judging by last Saturday, Wesley McGriff’s defense has taken a step in the right direction by preventing big runs on the ground, allowing just two rushes of 15 or more yards. At times, the Landsharks dominated up front, stopping 26 percent of Texas Tech’s runs at or behind the line of scrimmage (the national average is 20 percent).

While that’s certainly encouraging, they still allowed lead back Da’Leon Ward to gain five or more yards on 47 percent of his carries (the national average is 38 percent). They also had their share of struggles sealing the edge, and if SEC backs are given the same number of opportunities to make plays, it’s not hard to imagine them doing more damage, however much improved the open-field tackling is with this fresh linebacker corps.

The Salukis (lol wut?!) ran the ball 65 times for 300 yards against Murray State last week, and McGriff has already made it clear that loading up the box to stop the run will continue to be the defense’s main point of emphasis.

2. The offense needs to be more efficient running the ball.

It may seem nitpicky to look for something wrong with gaining 225 yards on just 26 carries (excluding sacks), but taking away Scottie Phillips’ three biggest carries leaves the team with 77 yards on 23 carries, a 3.3-yard average.

The Rebels ended things last Saturday with a rushing success rate of less than 35 percent, compared to their passing efficiency of 56 percent. Given how much space Tech was giving them up front once the Rebels landed a few big shots through the air, it seems reasonable to expect more from a veteran offensive line, no matter who’s in the backfield. Just 19 percent of carries got stuffed, which is fine, but only 10 of the backs’ 26 carries gained five or more yards.

When you compare Phillips’ breakout day to the other backs, who combined for one yard on five totes, it’s apparent that run blocking wasn’t the only issue. The 2017 running backs, including Jordan Wilkins, showed similar early-season rust but finished with a rushing success rate of 46 percent, so it’s more than reasonable to think this won’t be a year-long trend.

3. Jordan Ta’amu could be better on passing downs.

Similar to the offense’s gaudy rushing totals, glancing over Ta’amu’s stat line from Week 1 doesn’t reveal much other than the guy is a stud. Taking a deeper dive shows that 301 of his passing yards came on standard downs (75 percent success rate). In obvious passing situations, he completed just four of 10 passes for 20 yards and a 10 percent success rate.

It’s not exactly profound to point out that with a large enough sample size, quarterbacks are going to perform worse on passing downs compared to standard, but the drop-off shouldn’t be this dramatic. Ole Miss finished last season 22nd nationally in passing downs S&P+, staying on schedule 34 percent of the time, but much of that figure can be attributed to how they fared against poor defenses earlier in the year. To end 2017, the Rebels had PD success rates of 29 and 15 percent against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, respectively.

Last week’s on-paper struggles in these situations may require more context. There were a few times that the offense went conservative on third down in Red Raider territory, like when Ta’amu found Lodge near the sideline on 3rd-and-30 to get back into field goal range. Still, as someone already pointed out, Ole Miss is going to be backed into more passing downs against SEC defenses, and they could use every opportunity possible before then to improve in this area.