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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss hope is alive, for now

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Five takeaways from the Rebels’ week one loss to Memphis.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In a game where neither team looked particularly competent, Ole Miss fell to Memphis 15-10 on Saturday.

Outside of a 10-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that lacked a single defining play, Rich Rodriguez’s offense struggled and never found a rhythm. On defense, Mike MacIntyre seemed to have his group in order, but has work to do.

Looking ahead to week two, with a one in the loss column; the Rebels have a lot to figure out if they want to see bowl eligibility come October, let alone December.

Here are the five major takeaways from a demoralizing loss at the Liberty Bowl:

The offensive line needs work.

For a program with a former Offensive Line coach in charge, the Ole Miss offensive woes beginning with the Big Uglies was disappointing.

Entering the season, there was a clear question mark surrounding the group, with the departure of center Sean Rawlings, tackle Greg Little, and the versatile Javon Patterson. Additionally, senior Alex Givens was coming off of lower back surgery and held to a snap count in week one.

However, a number of guys stepped up during the spring, and there has been a recent history of success under current position coach Jack Bicknell Jr. None such success was prevalent in the first half.

The tackles were consistently beat by their first kickstep and forced to collapse the pocket, the guards looked lost as Memphis threw simple stunts, and there was no answer when the linebackers crashed.

Let’s put it this way… For a team’s run game to succeed, the offensive line must lead the way. In the first half, the run game combined for a loss of one.

Despite slightly better play in the second half, something isn’t working. Whether that be inexperience, a mental lapse that caused form to go by the wayside, or simply being out played is not for me to figure out.

But for Ole Miss to compete in any of its winnable games, Bicknell Jr. and company must.

The defense answered the call.

Memphis came into the season opener with the 7th best team offense in the nation from 2018 and a talented returning quarterback at the helm. Lining up on the other side of the ball, Ole Miss entered with a new defensive scheme under MacIntyre, another off-season under the belts for an inexperienced depth chart, and really nowhere to go but up.

With expectations fairly low, and hopes fairly high, the defense stepped up in a big way. Holding the Tigers to just 15 points (nine of which cannot be directly pinned on the defense), Lakia Henry, Keidron Smith, Josiah Coatney, Jon Haynes and Ryder Anderson each had at least five solo tackles, and an additional seven players had three or more. The Rebels finished with a serviceable eight tackles for losses, and a forced fumble. Even more impressively, Memphis converted just six of 17 third down opportunities.

Considering that the Tigers had the ball for nearly 40 minutes of play, and the defense was consistently forced to defend a short field, the performance was admirable. Guys were flying around, interior linemen were winning the battle in the trenches, and Benito Jones even got his first career interception. Sure, conditioning was an issue down the stretch, but that can be attributed to heat and a heavy workload.

All in all, the MacIntyre era of defense shows potential.

Discipline was exemplary.

The Rebels committed just three penalties for 35 yards. But there’s an asterisk to that.

Late in the first quarter, Memphis faced a third down at its own 42-yard-line. Damonte Coxie took the hand-off, and was immediately snuffed by Sam Williams. Williams, making his first start for the Rebels, appeared to have a tackle for loss. Then the penalty flags came flying in and Williams was called for a facemask.

On second look, Williams had a handful of Coxie’s jersey, but never made contact with the helmet in any fashion—let alone the facemask. But, the drive stayed alive.

Later in the Memphis push, facing a third-and-17 at the Ole Miss 37-yard-line, Williams again crashed the backfield and put pressure on quarterback Brady White. White released a throw downfield, and Williams clobbered White. Although it was clearly one fluid motion from the initial hit through the ground, Williams was flagged for roughing the passer. Questionable.

The controversial penalty-ridden drive ended in seven points for the Tigers, which ties back to the strong defensive performance.

Outside of the two Williams penalties, Alex Givens was called for a false start early in the second quarter, but that was it. The Rebels looked poised, structured and set.

All hope is not lost.

A week one loss to Memphis is not what Ole Miss fans, players, or coaches had hoped for. But, the season is not over-- yet.

Ole Miss is favored in five remaining games: Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana, Cal, Vanderbilt (A.J. caught it), and New Mexico State. Obviously Vegas favorites mean nothing in reality, but even at face value, one would think that those five games are winnable.

At that point, the Rebels would need just one win against someone like Missouri (if Wyoming can do it… maybe Ole Miss can to?), in a rivalry game on Thanksgiving, or perhaps a home upset against Texas A&M.

Of course, LSU, Alabama and Auburn are also on the table. Ha.

So yes, losing to Memphis out of the gate diminishes bowl hopes almost immediately, but it’s not time to throw in the towel on 2019 just yet.

The defense looked strong, the offense gained 110 yards in the 3rd quarter, and Scottie Phillips seemed to find his sea legs down the stretch. There were positives stemming from Saturday, but loss to Arkansas could do them in.

Ole Miss needs to buckle down, get back to the basics, and find answers quickly.

Memphis is the worst.

No one likes losing to the little brother.