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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss football causes patience to wear thin against LSU

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Thank you, seniors. Beat State.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss football won the coin toss and elected to defer, immediately bending the knee to LSU on Saturday.

Two minutes and four seconds later, the Tigers put six on the board and kicked off the high-scoring affair. Joe Burrow continued one of the best college seasons ever, went 5-of-6 on the opening drive, and capped it off with a beautiful 34-yard touchdown. He went on to complete 76 percent of his passes for 489 yards, and became the all-time LSU single season passing leader while in Oxford. Because of course he did. The Rebel secondary could not find an answer for the Heisman Trophy favorite and his wide receiving core, which saw Ja’Maar Chase go for 227 yards, and Justin Jefferson break the 100-yard mark.

Aside Burrow in the backfield, Cylde Edwards-Helaire averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 23 touches and ran through gaps wide enough for an 18-wheeler. The Tigers finished with an astonishing 34 first downs, and 714 yards of total offense. Mike MacIntyre’s fairly stout defense has answered the call over much of the season, but was simply out-played and out-muscled on Saturday.

After falling behind 28-0 midway through the second quarter, the Rebels tried to run their way back into the game, and never could overcome its early deficit. Don’t let the score get it twisted, Ole Miss never truly stood a chance.

Here are the five major takeaways from the 108th Magnolia Bowl:

John Rhys Plumlee is faster than a hot knife through butter.

With 212 yards on the ground, Plumlee broke the Ole Miss single-game quarterback rushing record, and is the first quarterback to rush for over 200 yards against the No. 1 team in the nation since Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl. He was also the first quarterback to rush for over 200 yards on LSU since Cam Newton in 2010, and broke Ole Miss’ single-game rushing record against LSU, previously set by Deuce McAllister.

His gameplay on the field continues to be incredible when he finds open space. Against the top team in the nation, he averaged more than 10 yards-per-carry and added four touchdowns. Have yourself a day, sir.

By unofficial record, on his 46 and 50-yard touchdowns, he ran sub-4.3 40s, and ran in his 35-yard score at the same pace. To put his speed in perspective, only 11 players have ever run a sub-4.30 second 40-yard-dash in the NFL combine. If you give Plumlee field on which to run, he will simply do so— and you will not catch him.

To quote SEC referee James Carter, “speed is a God-given equalizer, and he has it.”

Seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee ya.

Offense, beyond JRP speed.

Branching out from design runs for Plumlee, the Ole Miss offense had positives on which to hang its hat, but certainly did not do itself any favors.

Starting with the good, look no further than Jerrion Ealy.

The two-sport recruiting “get” has been the lead back for the Rebels over the last few weeks as Scottie Phillips remains out with a leg injury. With the second most touches on Saturday, he recorded the first 100-yard game of his career with 141 yards on 13 carries. The numbers don’t lie, but his quickness in changing direction is what sets him apart. A defender is taught to follow the waist of the ball carrier and wrap around the hips, as the core will always stay centered.

The thing is, with Ealy, if he shakes left and cuts right (or vice versa), the core moves past the line of vision before it’s in sight. And then, of course, he too will out run your fastest guy.

In addition to the career night for freshman running the ball, a couple of uplifting notes came in the passing game. The first, came with No. 10, who is clearly not going to air it out on SEC defenses. His shortcomings with accuracy and arm strength (which again shined through during much of the game on Saturday) aside, of the 56 percent of passes he did complete, they were confident short-yardage attempts.

He found a few tight windows and got the ball out to quick buttonhooks and near slants. That should not be the standard for a quarterback in the SEC, but it is a start for a guy who appears to be the guy the coaching staff wants running the offense going forward. In truth, any completed pass is a positive.

His counterpart, Matt Corral, has taken a significant step backward in the amount of time on the field. After Ole Miss went down 21-0 with Plumlee at the helm, the switch was made and Corral came in to try and find a spark. He started hot with two straight completions, but met the fate of a three-and-out from consecutive incompletions soon thereafter. Then, in what could be considered a “please don’t transfer” ploy for the redshirt freshman, he saw the field late in the game, once the score was all but solidified.

In his short window behind center, Corral completed all four of his pass attempts and aired one out to Elijah Moore for the 55-yard touchdown. Moore finished with 143 yards receiving on nine catches. If you didn’t look at the rest of the stat-sheet, you might think that the Rebels efficiently moved the ball down field with the pass.

Of course, they did not. But there were some positives if you look hard enough.

On the flipside, the Rebels had 614 yards of total offense, rushed for 402 yards, and lost by 21-points. Some of that is on the defense, some of that is on the head coach, but a lot of that is the reoccurring inability to score when one is necessary. Yes, the offense had a numerically dominant day, but numbers aren’t everything. Sometimes, a team has to score before the game gets away from it, or needs to hold a long, methodical drive to chew clock and end in points. Rich Rodriguez and Ole Miss cannot do so.

Throughout the first half, the play calling was again to be questioned for predictability and simplicity. The constant draws and options on early downs left long yardage situations to pick up first downs late in a series. And when the Rebels lined up for 3rd-and-long situations, they were met with short passes to the hashmarks, or incompletions to the sidelines on too many occasions. From a quarterback who cannot throw, no less.

37 points should win the majority of SEC games, one might think. However, falling into a three-possession hole halfway through the second quarter is more often than not unclimbable, even if sticking with the run game eventually wears down the defense and exposes opportunities to take advantage of gaps and coverage. It’s too little too late.

Ole Miss has a toolbox of talent, an offensive line amidst a rebuild, and has the potential to blow open the door against almost any team it faces if the pieces come together. That doesn’t mean the offensive explosion will end in wins, as seen on Saturday, and the simple schemes will not necessarily garner success but for numbers on paper.

Indescribable ineptitude.

Reports that Matt Luke will be kept on as head coach in 2020 came out on Thursday, and he proved once again why that is the wrong decision on Saturday.

Luke’s contract would place his buyout around $6.5 million and, when combined with the contracts of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre, would push the cost of dismissing Luke well north of $12 million— which the University leadership says it cannot afford. It is a big sum of money, certainly, but one worth paying after another display from Luke of being in over his head.

To begin, Ole Miss entered the game at 4-6, as three-touchdown underdogs, against the undefeated NUMBER ONE TEAM IN THE NATION. There was nothing to lose.

Instead, Luke continued to play scared through short field goal attempts with a struggling placekicker and punts on 4th-and-2 and 4th-and-5 around midfield, which gave the ball back to the best offense in the country. 20/25 yards of field position should not be of concern when the opponent is going to score anyway.

Even worse than the clear lack of desire to win football games, was a downright dumbfounding sequence to begin the second quarter. After a stoppage of play to switch sides of the field, Ole Miss faced 4th down at their own 33, and lined up to punt.

Luke called a timeout.

The initial thought was that maybe Luke gut-checked himself and realized there was no point in punting, when two yards could keep the drive alive.

Instead, after the timeout, Ole Miss punted.

Luke called a timeout before a punt, after a television timeout between quarters, to punt.

Yup.

Changing of the guard.

Saturday night was the final home game for 18 senior Rebels.

Vernon Dasher, Jason Pellerin, KeShun Wells, Octavious Cooley, Myles Hartsfield, Willie Hibbler, Scottie Phillips, Jalen Julius, Armani Linton, Austrian Robinson, Kweisi Fountain, Josiah Coatney, Brenden Williams, Michael Howard, KC Swaim, Alex Givens, Benito Jones, and Qaadir Sheppard will move one from Ole Miss after the Egg Bowl as the last class to reach a bowl game.

Unfortunately, Phillips was sidelined with an ankle issue, Linton is suspended for a violation of team rules, Julius injured his forearm early in the game and could not return, and Jones (the most likely to make some noise on the next level) missed much of the game with a head injury.

In their absence, and sticking true with the theme of 2019, youth was called upon. Through 11 games, Ole Miss has played 37 freshman, which is the second most in the NCAA. There is a lot to be made of the up-and-coming underclassmen on the defensive side of the ball who are settling in to the next level under an elite defensive coordinator, but the offense is where they are already shining most.

Splitting the backfield with Ealy on Saturday was Snoop Conner, the change-of-pace downfield power runner. Though he only received eight carries, he continued to fall forward for over five yards per carry. Plumlee, Ealy, and Conner combined for over 300 yards rushing in the first three quarters, and damn near 400 in the game.

Plumlee, Ealy, and Conner are each 18 years of age.

To say that there is a bright future coming for Ole Miss might be a stretch, but a lot of talent will mature into solid ballplayers over the next few years, and if there is to be a positive takeaway, it is such.

Adopt joy.

There are few things that can immediately heal frustration and disappointment of this caliber. One of those cures is a furry friend who will always love you endlessly.

Mississippi Critterz is Oxford’s local animal shelter, housing hundreds of cats and dogs waiting for someone to lay beside through his/her inevitable Ole Miss letdown.

Just look at this handsome boy!