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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss identity shines in home opener win over Arkansas

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The Rebs made huge strides from week one to week two.

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

Ole Miss defeated Arkansas 31-17 in Oxford on Saturday night for its first win of the 2019 season.

After starting the year with a displeasing loss, the Rebels faced a Razorback team that struggled with the Portland State Vikings in week one. Coming into the weekend, it was fair to say that neither team looked particularly competent.

As it would turn out, Ole Miss might be.

Here are the five major takeaways from a confidence-boosting win:

The Landshark defense is back.

Mike MacIntyre seems to have found something that works. The first-year coordinator came to Oxford with a plethora of young, undeveloped athletes at his disposal, and installed a primarily 3-4 defensive scheme that allows his guys to play fast and flexible.

Through the first two weeks, his unit has allowed a total of 23 points. However, seven points came on the heels of two questionable penalties against Memphis, and seven points came with under two minutes of ‘garbage time’ against Arkansas.

Thus, taking a butter-knife approach, the Landshark defense has held its opponents to nine points on the year. Nine.

Of the standouts from Saturday was the secondary, which was problematic in 2018— to say the least. Against Arkansas, four of the five leading tacklers were defensive backs, led by Jacquez Jones with nine total tackles and Myles Hartsfield with five solo tackles.

Before his return to the college game in 2008, MacIntyre was a defensive backs coach in the NFL and worked with Pro-Bowlers like Darrelle Revis, Darren Woodson and Terence Newman. He knows how to coach ball-hawks, and it shows.

Beyond the secondary, 6’1, 330-pound senior Benito Jones locked down the line of scrimmage. Playing primarily in the zero-technique spot, he recorded five total tackles and one of the Rebels’ 10 tackles-for-loss. Jones, who put pressure on Razorback quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel for most of the night, at minimum forced a double-team that opened rush-gaps for his linebackers.

Included in the backfield pressure was linebacker Sam Williams. Though his numbers didn’t stand out on the stat sheet, Williams was flying around like a banshee all night, and recorded a sack in the first half.

Additionally, Arkansas running back and former ‘Last Chance U’ star Rakeem Boyd was held to under 100 yards rushing. After tormenting the Rebels and SEC defenses a year ago, Boyd never broke beyond the second level and had his longest run of the evening go for just 10 yards.

Yes, it was Arkansas, but the defense was playing as one and having fun. More to come.

Matt Corral started to find his game.

Corral’s first start for Ole Miss was something of a letdown.

His second, made his first soon to be forgotten.

Receiving the ball to start the game, the Rebels went three-and-out. At the heart of the turnover on downs was a quick slant across the middle. Dontario Drummond made a quick cut and found himself with a step on his defender. Corral recognized his receiver, but threw it low. That was one of just eight incompletions on the night.

On the second drive of the first half, it looked as though he really found a groove. He hit Elijah Moore on the first snap for a gain of 21 yards. Corral got his offense to the ball and set up the run. Two plays later, he found Drummond on the same slant he missed early on. Later in the drive, Corral rolled out, faked the pitch wide, tucked the ball and scrambled for a tough 11 yards. He made the perfect read, and it worked. Two plays later, the Rebel signal-caller put the ball where only his receiver Moore could go get it, and the Rebels were on the board.

Though his inexperience showed at times, Corral is a redshirt freshman and growing pains are inevitable. In particular, on the first drive of the second half, the Rebels ran the same wide option that had worked in the first half. Corral over-sold a fake and wasn’t able to pull the ball to his chest before the Razorback defender knocked it loose.

It worked once, so he tried it again, and it didn’t work.

He’ll learn.

In another instance, he had tight end Octavious Cooley in space, but held the ball too long. By the time he tossed it wide, Cooley was swarmed by the Arkansas defense and stripped for a scoop-and-score.

The play probably could have been whistled dead, but Corral left his receiver high-and-dry nonetheless.

He’ll learn.

Despite the few undesirable moments, Corral ended the night with 246 yards passing and two touchdowns. He was also the team’s second leading rusher with 10 attempts for 43 yards. Not a bad night for the California kid.

When the offense rolls, it really rolls.

The offense looked stagnant in week one, and the result showed that. Against Arkansas, the training wheels came off and Rich Rodriguez’s unit began to cruise.

Throughout the game, the tempo was great.

Whether it was a 20-yard gain, or a two-yard loss, the Rebels were on the ball and set for play in the 13-to-17 second range. The faster Ole Miss moves, the less time the defense has for adjustments and substitutions, which swings the pendulum toward the offense’s favor.

With the speed of the offense came a clear rotation of personnel.

On the first two drives alone, the Rebel backfield saw three different running backs get touches. This approached changed slightly as Scottie Phillips began to dominate the game, and therefore took the majority of touches, but the flow of backs stayed consistent.

Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and Phillips saw a steady share of snaps, each being utilized for different reasons. Phillips finished with 143 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns, Ealy had three catches for 39-yards, and Conner was both strong in protection and a bowling ball in short-yardage situations.

In tandem with the backfield’s successful night, was the breakout from Moore that was to be expected. Yes, the entire receiving core saw success with finding space and shaking individual coverage, but Moore was exceptional. Capping off a 130-yard night, Moore scored his second touchdown on a 43-yard highlight reel serpentine. (P.S. Corral put it on a dime.)

All in all, Rodriguez’s option-first offense moved the ball. Putting up just under 500 yards total offense, the Rebels converted over 50 percent of third-downs, and scored 31 points.

That’ll do.

Conditioning was clear.

While not quite a late-August morning at the Liberty Bowl, Saturday night’s home opener was still not what you would call pleasurable when it came to the weather.

It was a Mississippi summer. Hot and sticky.

Against Memphis, both the offense and the defense (who were on the field significantly more than their counterparts) looked gassed come the fourth quarter. The explosiveness lacked, and the mental exhaustion creeped in on the little things like wrapping up and staying home defensively.

Against Arkansas, the energy was palpable, and Ole Miss out-hustled their opponents from start to finish. The extra wind sprints paid off.

THE TURNOVER SHARK TOOTH CHAIN IS A REAL THING AND IT IS GLORIOUS!!!

Late in the 3rd quarter, Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley boggled the pigskin and put the ball on the turf. Luke Knox, brother of former Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox, came up with the recovery and the first turnover of the night for the Rebels.

With that honor, he was the first to rock the best turnover prop in all of college football.

Live it, learn it, love it.

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