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The Cage Dive: For Ole Miss, it’s all about learning

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This was certainly one to build on.

Josh McCoy-Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss scored 31 points against Alabama on Saturday afternoon.

For what was an on-paper slaughter, the Rebels hung around just long enough to force the Crimson Tide starters to play late into the fourth quarter, and covered the spread. Not bad.

Here are the five major takeaways from a game that could have been much worse:

The youth abides.

The 2019 recruiting class played without fear in its first trip to Tuscaloosa. Of the primary playmakers throughout the game, the majority were underclassmen, which bodes well for the future of the Ole Miss program.

Out of the gates, the ball was in the hands of the youngins. Literally.

About an hour before kickoff, quarterback Matt Corral, who left the California Berkeley game with a chest injury, was seen in street clothes during warmups. It was John Rhys Plumlee’s game, a true freshman making his first start against the No. 2 team in the country.

It was no small task, but the Hattiesburg native answered the call as best he could.

Virtually handpicked by offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez to run his signature option offense, Plumlee made his reads as he should. He was dependable on the ground, finished with a team-high 25 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown, and made plays.

However, his passing game left a lot to be desired. Yes, it was the No. 2 team in the country, and yes, he was making his first start, but Plumlee has a long way to go. He completed just 10 of his 28 attempts, and couldn’t get the ball out efficiently for most of the game.

He found a bit of a groove as the game went on, and put a back shoulder throw to Jonathan Mingo on a dime in the fourth quarter. Mingo, a true freshman himself, made a great catch, but Plumlee put it where only his guy could go get it.

Adding on to his highlight touchdown grab, Mingo led the team with 74 yards receiving, and created space when it wasn’t given.

To compliment Plumlee’s rushing and Mingo’s receiving, two freshman running backs stepped into the hole and found open field. 5’10, 215 pound bowling ball Snoop Conner showed his ability to drive the ball between the tackles, while Jerrion Ealy, who was nonexistent in the loss to California, broke out to the edges on quick speed options. Both backs averaged 6.2 yards per touch. Nothing to scoff at.

Early in the first half, Ealy followed Conner on a sweep and lowered his shoulder for the first down. The backfield is in good hands for years to come.

Our buddy Peter gives us a quick breakdown here:

In addition to Conner’s lead blocking, freshman offensive tackle Nick Broeker held his own against the Tide front. Despite his lack of experience, Broeker held down his side of the line, and the Rebels only allowed one sack on the day.

The offense was not the only freshman-led side of the ball. On defense, cornerback Deantre Prince put in a valiant effort against an Alabama receiving corp that accounted for 418 yards and six touchdowns. Set up behind Prince, AJ Finley made a living cleaning up the loose receivers and recorded a tackle for loss on a safety blitz.

Across the board, the Rebels are young. The future may not be bright, but it sure as heck can’t be worse than the current on-field product.

Quarterback questions.

For the second week in a row, the conversation surrounding yet another Ole Miss loss revolves around the quarterback. Corral’s timetable to return from his injury is unknown, and Plumlee looks more and more like a perfect fit with every snap. A versatile playmaker who can make things happen with his feet is exactly the type of athlete that Rodriguez is looking for to run his offense. Plumlee, who Rodriguez made sure committed to Ole Miss, is that guy.

There’s just one problem— what then to do with Corral.

Corral has the stronger arm, bigger stature, and is the better quarterback when he’s on. When he’s not, Corral is more frustrating than sitting in the middle seat on an airplane out of Memphis (this is a fat joke).

To make matters more interesting, true freshman Grant Tisdale nips at the heels of them both. The pride of Allen, TX can make plays and throw the snot out of the ball.

While we likely won’t see much of Tisdale going forward, he impressed in his only time on Saturday. He led a six play, 70 yards drive that culminated in a 28-yard touchdown pass to Jadon Jackson (also a true freshman).

Who do the Rebels turn to? Nobody knows, but everyone has an opinion.

Just send it.

In case you missed the memo, this year is a rebuilding year. Sure, a bowl game would be nice, but it is a rebuilding year.

With that in mind, there is nothing to lose. There were instances of timidness with play-calling on Saturday, and that’s not unforgivable, but baffling.

If you’re playing the No. 2 team in the country on the road, why not let it all hang out?!

On a few occasions, the Rebels had the ball in the opposing half and chose to punt on fourth-and-5ish. In a normal scenario, that is the logical decision. With two first-year coordinators, and abundance of underclassmen and no expectations, this season is everything but normal. In fact, the only expectation may be for Matt Luke to coach with some guts. Go for it.

Another theme of the coach Luke era comes before the half. Time and time again, the Rebels have had the ball with some time on the clock. Not always a lot, but some.

More often than not, Luke called for kneel down or a run up the middle to run down the clock and head into the locker room. In a tight game with a level competitor, sure, take it to the half.

If you’re playing the No. 2 team in the country on the road, why not let it all hang out?!

Give and take defense.

First year defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre has said before that his defensive priority lies in stopping the run. On Saturday, the Rebels held Najee Harris, one of the nation’s most prolific runners, to 71 yards rushing. That number came on just nine carries, but clearly, Nick Saban put his emphasis on the arm of Tua Tagovailoa. And that’s just what MacIntyre wants.

To MacIntrye, a historically successful defensive mind, puts his emphasis on the secondary. In his mind, pass plays have more potential for mayhem. Interceptions, big hits leading to fumbles, stripped receivers down the sidelines— there is more vulnerability in a pass than a well-protected run play up the middle.

With such logic, he would rather shut down the run game, and leave his defensive backs to make plays. The problem with that, lies in the skill. The Ole Miss secondary is young in some spots, and just plain bad in others. As a result, a quarterback of Tagovailoa’s level (a potential Heisman candidate), had his way with the defense.

If the talent develops, and the maturity increases, the damage won’t be as bad. For now, you give and you take. But mostly give.

OLE MISS WON THE FIRST QUARTER!!!!!!

Imagine not being in the First Quarter Transitive Property National Championship conversation. Can’t relate.