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The Cage Dive: Ole Miss damn near did it against Alabama

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It was a heck of an effort and a ton of fun.

Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss football and Lane Kiffin came awfully close to pulling off an earth-shattering upset over No. 2 Alabama and Nick Saban. It was a battle of two high-powered offenses in their own right and the Rebels left nothing in the tank.

Here are the five major takeaways from a game that almost was:

Jeff Lebby is a wizard.

There is no doubt that Kiffin coached circles around Saban in their first meeting since the former’s time coaching under the latter in Tuscaloosa from 2014 to 2016. However, he is not the one calling plays— that’s offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby up in the booth.

The Rebels moved the ball quickly and with authority against what is typically one of the nation’s top defenses, racking up 647 yards and converting 9-of-17 third downs and all four fourth down attempts. Alabama has allowed 600-plus yards only three times since Saban took over in 2007 and the Lebby-led offense could not be stopped. Quarterback Matt Corral completed 21-of-28 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns without an interception and both scores went to tight end Kenny Yeboah, who finished as the team’s top yardage receiver.

The Tide did not have an answer for Lebby, who was dicing coverages, keying in on mismatches and exposing poor line play from start to finish. The Rebels were pushing the tempo from the get-go and only had one possession last longer than four minutes, resulting in a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. It was fast, powerful and calculated.

Ole Miss plays Arkansas next weekend, pitting Lebby against his brother-in-law Kendal Briles, who calls plays for the Hogs, was Kiffin’s offensive coordinator in his first year at FAU, and worked alongside his sister’s husband on the same staff at Baylor. What a fun storyline!

The run was established.

The Rebel backfield ran for only 309 total yards through the first two games of the season and didn’t have a single rusher break the 100-yard mark against Kentucky or Florida. That all changed on Saturday when Thunder and Lightning broke loose. The nickname stems from Reggie Bush and LenDale White’s dynamic power/speed duo at Southern California, where Kiffin called plays during the program’s most recent run of success. At Ole Miss, power back Snoop Conner is the thunder, while shifty speedster Jerrion Ealy is lightning.

We examined how the two backfields bear a striking resemblance prior to the season’s start, but didn’t see much from either runner to begin the year. Against an Alabama defense that had allowed just one touchdown in its first two games, Ealy and Conner combined for four scores and 248 yards. Conner out-gained his counterpart by eight yards on two more carries, but neither outplayed the other in an equal effort of brilliance. While Ealy dazzled with his filthy cuts and quick bursts, it was Conner who drove his legs and made defenders wish they were not in his line.

The transition between the two backs was seamless and each was utilized best for success. Ealy was typically in on passing and longer-yardage downs in the middle of the field, while Conner saw snaps in short-yardage situations in the red zone, but both saw carries up and down the field and made the most of their touches.

Helmet stickers go to the backfield, and the Big Uglies, who got solid push against a tough defensive front all night.

But not the run defense.

This is going to be a reoccurring segment, so get used to it. Ole Miss’ defense is so bad. The schemes and play-calling is one thing, and D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge can only do so much before it’s out of their hands. The Rebels allowed Mac Jones to complete all but four of his passes for more than 400 yards and two touchdowns, which is not ideal. To make matters worse, Najee Harris turned up the volume on his Heisman Trophy campaign with 206 yards rushing on 23 carries (an average of 9.3 yards per touch) and five touchdowns. Woof.

To figure out the solution is a conundrum that isn’t worth speculating, because there likely won’t be one until there is. That may sound dumb, but with the (inferior) talent, inexperience and transition to a new system during a short offseason, there will not be improvement until it all clicks at once— if that moment is even to come this season, which does not appear to be the case.

Ben Brown.

There was only one real question mark on offense entering the season and that was the offensive line. Most of the group got itself sorted out, but Ben Brown has struggled with his snaps in each of the first three games. He is everything that a coach could ask from a guard and will find himself playing on Sundays, however, his transition to center has been difficult and the wet conditions didn’t help his cause. Brown botched a few snaps early in the first quarter and was visibly upset with himself on the sideline throughout the game. He was taking extra snaps both under center and from the gun while the defense was on the field and tried to get a rhythm down.

Unfortunately, it has yet to click and a poor snap cost Ole Miss a chance at the upset bid late in the game. There isn’t a need to relive it, but a bungled exchange left the offense with a significant third down and distance that wasn’t overcome and forced a field goal when it was clear that only touchdowns would suffice in keeping pace with Alabama’s scoring ease.

Brown was in his own head and really beat himself up over the moment on the sideline. The issues with the snap cannot continue and he knows that. Transitioning to a position that does not come naturally is tough and he will get it figured out. Hopefully his teammates lift him up this week, because it’s hard to pinpoint one play as the deciding factor.

Came through drippin’