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Ole Miss’ defense is in real trouble after getting exposed by Southern Illinois

The Rebels allowed an FCS team to pile up 386 yards in the first half.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

After Ole Miss’ route of Texas Tech, this website offered a cautiously optimistic assessment of what appeared to be an improving defense. In Houston, the Rebels prevented big plays, made stops when they needed to and, for the first time in two years, looked generally competent on that side of the ball. At the time, it appeared to be a good sign for things to come.

Wipe all of that off the board.

The defense was an absolute disaster in Saturday’s win over Southern Illinois. A trio of turnovers and the offense’s aerial bombardment made the final score 76-41, but Ole Miss was losing this game 38-35 at halftime. Here’s a snapshot:

  • SIU, an FCS school that won just four games last season, piled up 386 yards and averaged nearly nine yards per play in the first half.
  • They scored touchdowns on six of their first seven possessions, including five drives of 70 yards or more.
  • SIU QB Sam Straub completed 19 of his 25 passes for 299 yards and four touchdowns (plus a rushing TD) in the first half.
  • Ole Miss didn’t have a single turnover or sack in the first 30 minutes.

Let’s put that first-half debacle in perspective:

For the past two years, Ole Miss has suffered from a talent and depth deficiency on the defensive side of the ball, the result of Hugh Freeze’s failure to land top defensive recruits (particularly at linebacker). But Saturday’s performance showed that lack of talent isn’t the only—and probably not the primary—culprit. Every single player on the Rebels’ roster could start at SIU. The talent gap between an SEC and FCS program is enormous.

The Ole Miss defense was simply out-coached on Saturday. SIU used misdirection and play-action to completely befuddle a Rebel secondary and linebacker corps that looked like it’d never seen a forward pass.

Head coach Matt Luke claimed “100 percent” of the responsibility for the defense’s failures, but its hard not see this as a potentially damning outing for Wesley McGriff. The second-year defensive coordinator was brought on by Hugh Freeze in 2016 for his recruiting abilities, not his track record as a coordinator—his only coordinator experience running had come a decade prior at a DII school.

What was particularly concerning about Saturday was the way SIU moved the ball through the air. Ole Miss getting eviscerated on the ground is nothing new, but the Rebels should, in theory, be competent in pass defense this season. McGriff, who built his career as a defensive backs coach, has a secondary stocked with experience and talent. But they looked lost against SIU, which averaged nearly 12 yards per attempt in the first half.

Luke didn’t hire McGriff, but he did choose to retain him. Barring a dramatic turnaround, Luke could face a difficult decision this offseason.

Things don’t get any easier next weekend, when Nick Saban’s ruthlessly efficient scoring machine rolls into town. Bama’s monstrous O-line and marauding running backs have always been deadly, but the emergence of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has, in the words of The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman, unlocked the final level of Alabama destruction. The Tide has outscored Louisville and Arkansas State 108-21 in its first two games, racking up over 500 yards of offense in both. Tua’s scored six touchdowns while completing over 70 percent of his passes and posting the second best QB rating in the country.

The good news, as always, is the Ole Miss offense can fly up and down the field. Jordan Ta’amu threw for 448 yards and five touchdowns against SIU, while Scottie Phillips averaged over seven yards per carry and scored twice. A.J. Brown did A.J. Brown things (158 yards and two scores) and the Rebels’ fourth receiver, Braylon Sanders, looked like a star. The offense is prolific, but it can only cover for the defense for so long.