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The Cage Dive: What happened as Ole Miss lost to Arkansas?

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It wasn’t just a bad dream.

Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss football lost 33-21 to Arkansas on Saturday. It was mind-boggling to see an offense that was so successful through the first three games fail to find any sort of consistency in Week 4. There was not much to build on, it was a reminder to many (in the program and watching from afar) that there is still a lot of work to be done, and now the Hogs are going to run their mouths for 365 days. Not ideal.

Here are the five major takeaways from a game that simply cannot be:

4th and (goal at the) 1.

Arkansas punted to begin the game and Ole Miss went 55 yards on 12 plays. The Rebels faced 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard-line on the thirteenth play of the drive. Lane Kiffin elected to go for it, as he should, but Matt Corral fumbled as a result of a slow snap, confusion with motion in the backfield and a poor handoff. It was early, so it didn’t hurt too badly at the time.

However, it was not the only instance. Ole Miss found itself down 20-0 on the opening drive of the second half and faced another 4th-and-goal. Kiffin elected to go for it, as he should, and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby called the number of his biggest and most powerful back Snoop Conner, as he should. Conner was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and couldn’t convert.

The Rebels, who lost by a 12-point differential, could not have closed the final gap with a pair of field goals, and Kiffin played aggressively and point-forward. It was the right decision on both accounts, but neither was successful. There were many, many moments to point to as the clocked ticked down and the game went final, but two touchdowns on the 4th-and-goal situations would have tied the game and one or both of the Luke Logan point after touchdown attempts would have won the game.

Kiffin said from the get-go that conservative decision making was not his thing and that notion was reflected on the field on Saturday. Ole Miss attempted nine fourth down conversions and successfully converted five of them. The percentages swung in favor of favorable outcomes, but the inability to punch in for points on goal-line downs was costly.

Turnovers, two ways.

While fourth down conversion numbers were in the positive, third down attempts were not. Lebby and Ole Miss’ offense entered as the No. 7 best in the nation, turning 55.8 percent of third down attempts into a fresh set of downs. That number dropped by more than half against Arkansas on Saturday. The Rebels were able to convert only four of 16 third downs, a 25 percent clip— and it forced nine fourth-down attempts, of which five were successful.

Football teams cannot win games without staying on the field and moving the ball on third down. Moving the chains on only a quarter of attempts is not going to get it done.

While the team was turning the ball over on downs, its quarterback was turning the ball over with his arm. After lighting up the statsheet as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks through the first three games, Ole Miss’ gunslinger played about as poorly as anyone could. He completed just 52 percent of his passes and threw six interceptions, two of which were returned for points. It was Matt Corral’s horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day.

Arkansas played zone coverage throughout the entire night and Corral was staring guys down. Six interceptions is unacceptable and lost Ole Miss the game, but it’s hard to imagine that being replicated at any point. Saturday night was bad, but it won’t happen again, and the calls to replace him with John Rhys Plumlee are silly. Corral won the starting job outright in the preseason and has shown what he can do. Pulling him against Arkansas may have been warranted, but Kiffin had other thoughts that should be consistent across the board.

“We stayed the same just because of what they were doing,” he said. “I don’t believe you pull quarterbacks quick. It affects confidence and rhythm. Most would have done that today, but it’s the same guy most people have been saying is one of best in country.”

The Rebels and their fan base have become accustomed to junior college or transfer quarterbacks in recent years and forgot what it’s like to experience the growing pains of a young quarterback. Corral has less than 10 starts to his name and is only a redshirt sophomore. He’ll get it right.

Where oh where did Yeboah go? Where oh where could he be?

Tight end Kenny Yeboah did not see a single reception on Saturday, after he recorded 255 yards and four touchdowns on fifteen receptions in the first three games of the season. Arkansas did a good job of covering the flats, where Yeboah was able to see a lot of targets at the beginning of the season, and that took away the late read to his game-changing tight end from Corral. However, the Temple grad transfer is too athletic and too big of a threat in the red zone to not get him involved. If the flat routes aren’t there, like they were not on Saturday, Lebby needs to get him opportunities to catch a deeper route beyond the second level.

It’s the first time in a long time that a tight end is so crucial to the offense. Yeboah’s lack of touches was a testament to a poor day for Corral, and only Elijah Moore had more than two catches. With that being said, part of that may have been attributed to the invisible tight end. In this new-look Ole Miss offense, the tight end forces one of safeties to pull down and help the linebacker, which leaves a weak corner/receiver matchup exposed on the edges. As represented by the three combined catches for Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo, those matchups were well-defended for most of the game, outside of the fourth-quarter touchdown catch that can be attributed to busted coverage and an easy read.

Moore totaled 113 yards on 11 catches in the slot despite the inability to get anything significant going, which further established his case for the Biletnikoff Award and emphasized how tied-up that the split-out receivers were all afternoon. In addition, Jerrion Ealy saw 23 carries for 112 yards. Without success throwing the deep ball or to the edges, and a lack of trust in his quarterback, Lebby was forced to hand the ball off and take the slow-burn yardage. The lack of big plays kept Ole Miss from running its offense on full go and Yeboah’s silence was part of the problem.

As the lack of talent over the past few seasons has shown, having a tight end that can make a difference in the offensive game plan opens up opportunities in the red zone and across the middle of the field. Yeboah will need to get more involved for those beyond Moore and Ealy, the workhorses on Saturday, to have an opportunity to shine like they did against Florida, Kentucky and Alabama.

The defense.

This goes both ways.

On one side, credit where credit is due. Shoutout to Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom and head coach Sam Pittman. They had Corral in a pickle all night and were ultimately able to wrangle the numbers that Lebby’s offense put up against Florida, Kentucky and Alabama. Well done.

On the other, Ole Miss’ struggles continued. Numbers were a lot better from a statistics standpoint, and the Rebels held the Hogs to a season-low 394 yards of offense. That seems like a positive on the surface, and it was, especially without top defensive end Tariqious Tisdale and early-season playmaker Jakorey Hawkins. And yet, the defensive group still allowed a 95-yard drive that opened the scoring after the first failed 4th-and-goal and the secondary allowed Arkansas’ top four receivers to average more than 11 yards per catch, including Treylon Burke who put up a career and game-high 137 yards. There is still a lot of work to be done, and much of it comes on the recruiting trail by simply getting better athletes. The schemes have looked fine, but the full potential of co-defensive coordinators D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge have yet to be tapped with athletes that can really play.

All in all, the defense forced seven punts, two turnovers and only allowed 13 points through the first three quarters, and six of them came from holding Arkansas to field goals after Ole Miss gave up poor field possession. The Hogs offense scored just 20 points in the game and, considering how bad things were in the first three weeks, the Landshark defense really couldn’t have done more.

“Now we have seen both sides play well,” Kiffin said after the game. “We need to put it together and we can be a really good team.”

And if there was to be a positive from Saturday, this fake punt run from linebacker MoMo Sanogo would be it.

Give him a helmet sticker.

This game is cursed.