With eight minutes and 25 seconds to play in the third quarter against LSU, everything was still somewhat fine for Ole Miss. Storm clouds were forming, but disaster was not at hand. Down 24-20 after coughing up a 17-3 lead, they had the ball with a chance to score and go up 27-24.
After marching 66 yards in 12 plays to the LSU 9, the 13th play of the drive saw an untouched LSU defender (more on that later!) hit Jaxson Dart has he attempt to throw to Malik Heath in the end zone, and the pass was intercepted, which ushered in the NOT FINE portion of the game.
Over the remaining 19 minutes of the game, the offense ran 18 plays for 71 yards and scored no points, while the defense, hooooooo boy, gave up 198 total yards and 21 points. It was a flawless clinic on how not to finish a game.
Although the outcome reeked of weapons-grade disappointment, Ole Miss still has everything they could want in front of them. While winning out would be shocking, especially given the flaws revealed on Saturday, a repeat of last season’s 10 regular season wins is in play.
However, as we all saw, there are things that need to be fixed in a hurry, most notably pass protection and a run defense that is hemorrhaging yards. The question right now is can these, among others, be fixed to any degree this season or do they need bodies that are currently not on the roster.
What We Know
The run defense is currently off the grid
Usually, going off the grid is a good thing, as you get away from your regular energy-draining life and take some time to recharge. In this case, it is quite bad!
Over the last two games, the run defense has given up 553 yards at a clip of almost 5.8 yards per carry. It is impossible to have any kind of sustained success against an offense with that per carry number. In fact, the only times LSU* didn’t score when they had the ball came on a missed field goal in the first quarter, a second quarter punt, and a third quarter punt.
*Auburn had 12 possessions: 3 punts, 2 INTs, 1 fumble, 6 scoring drives (4 TDs, 2 FGs).
As Kiffin similarly noted after the game, this is a massive red warning light that can be seen blinking for miles around. They have to find an answer that doesn’t necessarily repair everything (though that would be great!), but does enough to prevent bleeding out because that is not real fun to watch.
If there is a positive, against Auburn, they gave up runs of 26, 48, 50, 22, and 50 yards. Against LSU, they gave up runs of 13, 13, 17, and 19 yards, so they at least cut down on the explosive runs, but they generated zero negative runs, as noted by these gruesome numbers:
Daniels rocked a 7.0 Y/C and 62.5% Success Rate on designed runs. He also had 5 of LSU's 6 broken tackles and 6/7 explosives. He added 41 more yards and 4 more BTs via scrambles. He erased 4 sacks. And yet, his Success Rate was the team-low https://t.co/HEXli0z8LI pic.twitter.com/RHcqiKYS9I— Clark Brooks (@SEC_StatCat) October 23, 2022
That’s a team averaged of 3.32 yards BEFORE contact and 2.61 yards after contact, which also brings poor tackling into the mix. So, in the TL;DR review, they got zero penetration and missed tackles when they finally got to the guy with the ball, which is not the ideal combination.
It’s the same defense as last year
While I haven’t taken the time to confirm the numbers, it at least feels like the only difference between last year and this year is defensive coordinator Chris Partridge is a little more aggressive than DJ Durkin was. But make no mistake, it’s the same 3-2-6 that’s designed to take away explosive plays and make opposing offenses put together drives where they string together multiple successful plays without giving up a drive-killing negative play.
And that would be the same defense that, last year after the Arkansas game, gave up 26, 17, 31, 14, 19, 17, and 21 points. It’s a philosophy that works, but what we’re seeing right now are a ton of mistakes, bad tackling, and a drop-off in talent from last year.
First, let’s look at an example of a mistake in the form of screwing up a run fit to perfection. As we’ve discussed before, whatever defensive formation you play, each player is responsible for a gap in the run game, meaning he has to fit that gap and not let anything come through it.
This is from the 3rd quarter, and LSU is facing a 4th and 1. Here are the run gaps (A, B, C, and D), and what my interpretation of who is responsible for each gap. I say interpretation because of the chaos that follows the snap.
Every gap is accounted for, with two safeties ready to rally to the ball. However, whatever Ole Miss wanted to happen did not happen due to a miscommunication or not understanding what their roles were.
Here’s what Ole Miss actually did:
The middle linebacker and right defensive end collide in the same weak side A gap, the left defensive end can’t get across the right tackle’s face and into the strong side B gap, and the two safeties are defending the same D gap. That means the strong side B gap is not defended and looks like this:
If you’re scoring at home, because of the breakdown in the run fit, LSU only needed to block two guys on this play to make it successful. The right guard had to drive the nose tackle inside (clogged up the A gap), and the right tackle and tight end had to keep the left defensive end from getting into the B gap.
Entirely possible the call in general was bad (although it feels like the linebacker who ended up in the A gap blitzed the wrong way and should’ve been in the strong side B gap), but there are multiple people where they probably shouldn’t be. When that happens, you give up 5.8 yards/carry.
And exactly like last year, lamentations for playing more four-man fronts have resurfaced. A four-man front solves nothing if you can’t maintain gap integrity, which is a problem right now.
Not to mention, changing fronts means reassigning and reteaching rules and responsibilities to the entire defense 75 percent of the way through a season. That’s not realistic, just like it wasn’t realistic last year.
Kiffin made the choice to commit to this style of defense because it’s unconventional and designed to limit explosive plays. Also, as he’s said before, he hates coaching against it because “it’s a pain in the ass.”
My point being, unless Kiffin decides it’s time to try something else, they’re going to keep running the 3-2-6. Partridge runs what they’re committed to, not some creation of his own.
The other significant issue is that the drop-off in talent from last year to this year is greater than what we thought it would be. There are still quality players out there, but last year’s defensive front had NFL-ready talent.
No one this year can do or is doing what Sam Williams did last year, which was be a one-man wrecking crew off the edge. He attracted a lot of attention, which helped free up other guys.
Right now, Cedric Johnson, Tavius Robinson, and Jared Ivey are the only defensive linemen generating any kind of production*, but they’re good not dominant players. They also play a ton of snaps, which isn’t great for later in a game.
*Nose tackles generally get a pass because they’re asked to eat up space and keep a center from climbing to the linebackers. Anything else they do is a bonus.
The two starting linebackers from last year made 53-man NFL rosters. The linebacker rotation this year does not have guys who are ready to make 53-man NFL rosters.
Obviously, injuries for some guys, most notably Johnson, JJ Pegues, and Khari Coleman, have slowed them down, so it’s possible they could close out the year strong as they get more healthy. But right now, it’s a thin group that lacks the dynamic abilities of last year’s front.
Pass protection: (deepest of sighs)
If you’re curious as to why it didn’t go great for Jaxson Dart and the Ole Miss offense in the second half, let’s a take a look at all 13 of the called pass plays when the game was competitive (up until 38-20).
That would be 1 out of 13 plays where he didn’t have pressure, and the single play he didn’t was a quick-hitter to Jonathan Mingo on the edge. On these plays, Dart was 4 of 12 for 47 yards and 1 interception. That he completed 4 should be considered a miracle.
Dart is young and learning the lessons taught by experience, but it doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback if there isn’t a clean pocket on 92.3 percent of pass plays in this stretch.
This is also a good reminder that Ole Miss plays the same 5 offensive linemen almost the entire game. They wear down as the game goes on, and there’s inexperience on the edges, with the two tackles being redshirt freshmen playing against elite SEC pass rushers.
I said a few weeks ago that a doomsday scenario was 5 or 6 guys in the offensive line rotation and here we are. Not ideal and, at this point, they’re rolling the dice on trying to get through the season with this limited or almost nonexistent rotation.
They’re one injury away from a real uncomfortable scenario, which I am already pre-hating.
What We Kinda Know
In his Monday press conference, Kiffin talked about Dart’s interception in the end zone and said left tackle Jayden Williams turned his head right before the snap to communicate with Casey Kelly (presumably about the protection). Here is documentation of said head turn:
If you look at Dart’s hands, he has just clapped, which tells center Caleb Warren it’s time to snap the ball. That happens about .1 seconds after this screenshot.
Is it bad if your left tackle and tight end are talking about how they should slide when the ball is snapped?
Spectacularly bad timing. It’s good that they were communicating in the face of what they correctly assumed would be pressure, but [shakes fist at sky].
And this falls in the Kinda Know section because it’s unclear if they should’ve figured this out before then, Dart should’ve called it out to them, or there should’ve been another scenario where they already knew. Regardless, AGONY.
Was it an Official Meltdown™?
As noted above, Ole Miss was 9 yards away from taking a 27-24 lead with 4 minutes to go in the third quarter. Then they got outscored 21-0 in the last 19 minutes.
At the risk of sparking a 1,000-yard stare upon recalling past Ole Miss-related trauma, I tend to lean toward they got behind, couldn’t get stops, and had to throw, and LSU knew they had to throw and couldn’t protect. In other words, more of a physical issue than mental.
Obviously, we can’t be certain about that, but in my time of seeing many an Ole Miss meltdown, that didn’t have the same feel or look as a team that panicked or folded. They just got mauled up front on both sides of the ball.
Whether physical or mental, NOT GREAT, BOB.
What We Don’t Know
Response after a loss
The first time this season exploring the space of bouncing back from a loss in a game you thought you would win and lost badly. As Kiffin preaches against, will the one loss turn into another loss? Will the humbling motivate them to reset the trajectory of their season? Who knows!
Fixin’ to fix things
As I said earlier, the current flaws in this team are there for everyone to see, including Texas A&M. Can they clean up pass protection, which was not an issue before last Saturday? Can they stop getting 900 penalties a game? Can they elevate to a mediocre run defense? Can they have one game where the best running back on the team (Zach Evans) is healthy and goes bonkers?