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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss can’t get out of its own way

More like ‘Cold Piss’.

Mississippi v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ole Miss hung around with Auburn on Saturday night, but ultimately hanged itself.

To the untrained eye, a 20-14 final score might convey a close, defensive battle with powerful running, a few deep completions, and a game-winning drive. On the second of November on the Plains of Auburn, Ala, 20-14 was anything but conventional.

The Rebels were handed countless opportunities to turn their optimism around with a sloppy, bizarre, upset win in a game where they never should have had a chance on the road. Instead, head coach Matt Luke dug himself a deeper hole, and made the road to bowl eligibility a 90-degree incline.

To qualify for the postseason, Ole Miss must beat New Mexico State, Mississippi State, and No. 1 LSU. Don’t hold your breath.

Here are the five major takeaways from a cruel joke:

Mac that money.

Auburn finished the night with 507 yards of offense, and should have scored at least 29 points. As a defense, that isn’t exactly a perfect game on paper. And for Ole Miss on Saturday, it wasn’t flawless. However, it was just about as good as it could get.

For starters, the Auburn offense had possession for 36(!) minutes. That’s just under five-eighths of the game, which means that Mike MacIntyre’s unit was tasked with stopping the No. 11 team in the nation for a comfortable majority of play. Exhausting.

But if you look at it from a different, twisted perspective, keeping Auburn on the field for that long can be seen as a positive. As opposed to breaking big scoring plays in short bursts, the Tigers were forced to work for each yard, and build a methodical drive into the end zone. Which but for two instances, they did not cross the goal line.

That’s right. Of Auburn’s 13 drives, just two resulted in touchdowns. And six of those drives ended inside the 40-yard-line, but didn’t go any further. The Ole Miss defense stepped up and forced a long field goal (the Auburn kicker missed three), or a punt. Five Rebels recorded five or more solo tackles, and the unit forced two fumbles, recovering one.

In addition to answering the call in big moments, MacIntyre and his defense held a strong rushing attack to less than 100 yards per half, and didn’t allow any single back over the century mark.

What more can you ask of a defense?

There is a caveat to the strong play of MacIntyre’s group, however, and it has been the achilles heel all year long. The Ole Miss secondary reared its ugly head once more, and allowed 237 yards passing to freshman quarterback Bo Nix in the first half. He finished with 340 yards total, so the defensive backs played better in the second half, but it was still not great.

Part of the struggle is simply a lack of SEC talent (due to Hugh Freeze’s recruiting and the bowl ban), and part of it is MacIntyre’s philosophy that forcing an opponent to throw creates more opportunities for chaos, which it did (Keidron Smith dropped an interception in his hands).

Nevertheless, the defense did its job and did it well. MacIntyre can coach.

Objectionable offense.

On the other side of the ball, Rich Rodriguez has an army of explosive athletes at his disposal. The offensive line isn’t necessarily up to SEC standard, there is a lot of youth among the consistent contributors, and Auburn is flat out good— but that is not an excuse for the product on Saturday night.

John Rhys Plumlee made the start, and immediately reminded why a two-quarterback system was in play to begin with. After two consecutive runs, Plumlee missed an open Elijah Moore by a comfortable amount, but was bailed out by a personal foul penalty. Rodriguez turned to an identical sequence, and Plumlee missed an open Moore on third down.

From that point forward, Rodriguez ran the ball on first down, and called a rollout pass on third down with an unwavering consistency that could drive a sane person to an asylum by game’s end. It was predictable, and unsuccessful.

The young Rebel athletes aren’t getting the ball in space, and there is no fluidity in the pre-snap motion, play-actions, or distribution. Whether the game has caught up with him, or his schemes don’t translate to the SEC, the play calling hasn’t worked.

Maybe the ‘home-run hire’ that was to restore an explosive run game to counter-balance the nWo wasn’t the right direction for the future of a young, rebuilding program after-all. A historically successful system doesn’t always translate to the present, and that was shown on Saturday.

Ole Miss finished with less than 150 yards offense in the first half, the starting quarterback barely completed 50 percent of his passes, no single rusher broke 100 yards, and the second touchdown came off of a special teams touchdown.

The coordinators have been a big storyline of the 2019 season, but not nearly as prominent as the quarterback situation. It has been discussed endlessly and sounds like a broken record.

In the past, it has been what to do with Corral, Plumlee, and Grant Tisdale. Each brought their own wrinkle to the position, and each was going to make a case for the starting job.

On Tuesday, Tisdale entered the transfer portal, seeking the opportunity to get in the game at another school. On Saturday, Corral stood frustrated on the sideline as Plumlee took a significant majority of snaps, and did nothing with them. It is all speculation until it is not, but with four-star duel-threat quarterback Robby Ashford committed to join the Rebels in the fall, don’t be surprised if Corral soon joins Tisdale in search of a new start.

For now, it appears, Plumlee is the guy. However, the run-first speedster has yet to show the accuracy and arm strength necessary to compete in the FBS, much less in the SEC. He completed just 11-of-21 passes for 86 yards on Saturday, and consistently missed open receivers or left his target out to dry. On the ground, he averaged a respectable 5.4 yards per carry against Auburn’s No. 10 SP+ defense, but never broke off the highlight run.

All in all, there is a lot to be reevaluated on offense at season’s end, starting with the animated man in the booth.

We are...

At no point should Ole Miss have been in a position to win the game. Even so, Ole Miss got the ball back, down six, with a minute left.

... throughout the game ...

  • The Rebels were stopped short on fourth down to begin the game.
  • The Tigers had more turnovers and more penalties.
  • The Rebels should have recovered a scoring-drive-ending fumble on the goal line.
  • The Tigers missed three field goals.
  • The Rebels forced a three-and-out that was negated by a childish personal foul.
  • The Tigers had just 58 yards in the fourth quarter.

Ole Miss wasted its opportunities, couldn’t score on the two minute drill, and lost in ugly fashion. Again.

Mac Brown Love.

Ole Miss punted a lot on Saturday. Eight times, in fact.

As a result, Mac Brown had his number called upon in both his own half and opposing territory. The redshirt junior took care of business and flipped the field on each occasion, which allowed the defense more room to work and step up how it did. Give some of the credit for great defensive play to Brown.

Brown entered the game averaging 44.6 yards per punt, putting him in the top-20 nationally. Although the situational punts on Saturday didn’t allow for as many booming moonshots, he averaged a comfortable 42.6 yards per punt and sent one long for 57 yards in the second quarter. Only one of his hammers was returned, for one yard, and three landed inside the twenty.

There’s a reason he’s on the Ray Guy Award Watch List, given to the nation’s best punter.

Not only is he a good punter, he’s good people.

Show him some love.