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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss football is in trouble with tough slate remaining

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Welcome back to the wilderness.

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

Well, the 2019 Ole Miss football season is all but over.

After losing 28-20 to the California Berkeley Golden Bears on Saturday, the Rebels will need to win four of its next eight games to reach bowl eligibility. Of those games, three are ranked in the top-10, one in the top-20, and two on the road against Missouri and Mississippi State. The likelihood of reaching the postseason is slim.

Here are the five major takeaways from a game that presumably sealed the Rebels’ fate:

Matt Luke’s seat is fully baked and ready to be served.

The season began with high expectations for third-year head coach Matt Luke. The former offensive line coach took over as an interim in 2017, for a program in disarray. The team rallied around him, beat Mississippi State on the road, and had the interim tag removed to the tune of $2.48 million over three years. You know the story.

On Saturday, his ineptitude shined.

First and foremost, a head coach’s job is to inspire. Especially when he has two former ‘National Coach of the Year’ coordinators calling both sides of the ball.

The Rebels, who were hosting a Pac-12 team (a chance to show SEC dominance), that is ranked (underdog mentality), that beat them in 2017 (revenge game), at home (AT HOME), in a game that they had to win (the season more or less on the line), looked flat.

The team should have been ready to run through a brick wall, and that’s Luke’s MO. Instead, the energy was fine, the intensity was serviceable at best, and the sense of urgency was nonexistent.

Secondly, a head coach’s job is to manage.

Late in the game, the Rebels began at their own 40-yard-line, down 15 points, with nine minutes and 30 seconds remaining. The offense drove 48-yards to Cal’s 1-yard-line, before an 11-yard loss and an incompletion to set up 4th-and-goal from the 12.

Despite being well within kicker Luke Logan’s range, three points didn’t do much, down 15 points, with nine minutes and 30 seconds remaining.

Nonetheless, on trotted Logan to attempt a 29-yard three-pointer, down 15 points, with nine minutes and 30 seconds remaining.

Logan, who missed earlier in the game, missed again. Ole Miss’ drive resulted in zero points, down 15 points, with nine minutes and 30 seconds remaining.

If Luke’s lily-livered play calling isn’t telling enough, his decision making came into question in the fleeting moments.

After Ole Miss made it a one-possession game, Cal looked to ice the game and faced a third-and-1. Luke took a timeout with 2:58 left, hoping to conserve the clock. This is common practice for a team with three timeouts remaining. However, Luke had called his first timeout early in the second half to force a review, and let nearly 20 seconds tick down before calling the second.

The Landshark defense stepped up in a big way, with Jaquez Jones and Tariqious Tisdale stuffing the third down attempt. Luke called his third timeout, with 2:51 remaining and his offense about to get the ball back.

Fast forward to the final possession:

With 17 seconds to play, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee fired a bullet to Elijah Moore for what appeared to be a touchdown. But the refs ruled him down at the 1-yard line.

The Rebels, without a timeout, assumed the catch was a touchdown or that play would be stopped for a review. When it was not, the clock continued to run and the team rushed to the line on 4th-and-inches and ran an unsuccessful quarterback sneak as time expired.

Clock management wasn’t the only problem throughout the game, but it certainly left a lot to be desired. And that’s on the head coach.

Everybody and their mother was rooting for Luke, but the experiment failed. Barring a miraculous run, today should be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Successive secondary struggles.

For the second week in a row, Mike MacIntyre’s defensive backs looked lost. Whether it be a lack of conditioning, poor angles, a slow first step, or strictly a lack of talent, is to be determined.

Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who was held to an average of 176 yards passing by North Texas, Washington and UC Davis, exploded for 373 yards against the Ole Miss secondary. Of the 10 Golden Bear receivers who were targeted by Garbers, nine recorded catches of 10 yards or more.

While Rebel free safety Jalen Julius and strong safety Jon Haynes each finished in the top-five for tackles, that isn’t a good sign. Both Julius and Haynes are the last lines of defense, ready to clean up a play if it reaches their level. If the duo recorded 13 total tackles, that means the Cal offense broke past the second level on 13 occasions.

Every time Garber dropped back, it was more than likely to end in positive yardage. Some of that falls on the defensive line’s inability to get pressure on Garber, but they also held the Cal tailbacks to 66 yards rushing and recorded four sacks.

So...

MacIntyre will need to go to the tape and try again to get his defensive backs in line.

Where oh where did Jerrion go?

Jerrion Ealy was the “get” of the 2019 recruiting class. The dual-sport athlete is one of the most dynamic playmakers to come through the Ole Miss backfield, even after just four games. Against Southeastern Louisiana in Week 3, he broke an Ole Miss single-game freshman record set by Dexter McCluster with 273 all-purpose yards. He returned kicks, he caught passes, and he ran the ball. Left, right, up, and down, the Lions could not stop him.

Against Cal on Saturday, he had 67 all-purpose yards.

Even with Scottie Phillips handling primary running back duties, Ealy is a player who needs to get touches. He averaged 10 yards a catch on three catch and a team-high 6.3 yards a carry on four carries. But that is all we saw of the former five-star recruit. In the second half, Ealy had a 15-yard touchdown run and no receptions.

Why?

Quarterback contention?

Late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Matt Corral left the game with sore ribs and shortness of breath after being hit as he threw. Prior to that moment, he completed just three of eight attempts on a drive that needed to result in points if the Rebels had any hope of winning the game. On the night, Corral was 22-of-41, but led the team in rushing. He was consistently inconsistent, with moments of brilliance followed by moments of atrocity all night. When he was good, the offense flowed down the field as fluid as a cloud. When he was bad, the offense was as motionless as a monument. For some reason, it has yet to fully click for Corral.

However, Plumlee, a true freshman from Hattiesburg, MS., is nipping at his heels and making a case for his shot at the starting nod. He replaced Corral on the critical fourth quarter drive, facing a third-and-10. Plumlee took the snap and dashed down the sideline for 47 yards to the 15-yard-line. Ealy scored on the next play.

The Rebel defense forced a punt, and Plumlee found the game in his hands with two minutes and 45 seconds left. On the final drive, Plumlee went 7-for-7 and ran the the two-minute drill to perfection. Of course, the result was disappointing, but his effort was spectacular.

Though the sample size is little, the on-field product was significant. There may not be a legitimate case for Plumlee to start, but he is tailor-made for Rodriguez’s offense, and the kid can jig.

If Corral is healthy, it is to be expected that he will continue to start and he should.

Fire Pac-12 referees into the sun.

Elijah Moore almost certainly might have unquestionably scored.

Here’s another angle.

He scored. Maybe. Probably. Definitely.

Review it.