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What we know, kinda know, and don’t know: Never a doubt edition

Who among us was awash in crippling anxiety and slowly dying inside? Surely no one!

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth quarter of Ole Miss-Kentucky was a pressure cooker on the field and also in the stands of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

After not cashing in on opportunities to either knock out Kentucky or extend the lead to a point where time remaining would get the best of the Wildcats, Ole Miss was staring down the barrel of an official Hold On To Your Butts™ situation.

Fortunately for Ole Miss, the advantage in pass rush versus sacks percentage allowed by Kentucky (that we discussed last week) rose to the surface at the right moment in the form of Jared Ivey roasting a backup right tackle for a strip/sack to end the game.

Could last Saturday’s experience have been less stressful if the offensive execution was sharper? YEP. Could it have involved more wailing and gnashing of teeth if a few things had gone the other way? INDEED.

As Lane Kiffin noted, one-score games are a crapshoot. It’s great when you win, but a high win percentage in these games is not sustainable over an extended period.

The point being, if you get a chance to knock a team out and end the game, you better do it or not doing so will catch up with you. So, you know, it would be great if Ole Miss could do that and save us some mileage on the life odometer.

I would like to note that if I were a Kentucky fan and watched that game (either in person or on TV), the rest of my Saturday would’ve involved consuming potent elixirs and blasting John Prine’s cover of “My Old Kentucky Home” at noise disturbance levels.

At some point, I would’ve turned to another Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times Come Again No More.” While there are great versions of this song, I think my favorite may be, insanely enough, from a hidden-ish part of the video (VID-YA) game Far Cry: 5, which, if you’ve not played, isn’t super emotional because of the violence and such!

Anyway, Godspeed to Kentucky fans, and for Ole Miss, how about a second quarter knockout or TKO of Vanderbilt on Saturday. That would be enjoyable.

What We Know

Defense continues to do the heavy lifting

A rapid fire list of accomplishments against Kentucky:

  • 19 points allowed on seven scoring opportunities* (2.7 points/opportunity)
  • 328 total yards allowed (5.4 yards/play)
  • 2.9 yards/carry allowed
  • Three sacks
  • One safety
  • Nine tackles for a loss
  • Three forced fumbles (recovered two)

*Any possession that gets inside the opponent’s 40-yard line

It wasn’t a perfect day, as the Rebels did get pushed around at times, but the defense created enough havoc that it put the Kentucky offense in bad spots and were able to take advantage.

I would say something about Huge Bend But Don’t Break Energy, but thanks to some NOT GREAT, BOB special teams play from Ole Miss, Kentucky started drives at the Ole Miss 15, 49, and 39 and scored two touchdowns on those possessions.

If you’re scoring at home, the defense once again gave up a single score in the second half (only Tulsa has cracked double digits). That’s helpful considering the offense hasn’t scored a second-half touchdown since the Georgia Tech game, which is SOMEWHAT ALARMING.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the defense faces another offense that’s committed to the bully ball approach (successful or not) because the lack of size is noticeable.

Defensive effort on effort on effort

When you listen to an interview with a defensive player or coordinator Chris Partridge, they inevitably repeat their mantra, which is a version of fast, physical, violent, relentless effort, and do defensive things real good. Or something like that.

It’s easy to spot speed and violence, but what does relentless effort look like? I saw a couple of examples, one of which helped change the outcome of the game.

The first example is in the second quarter. Kentucky is at the Ole Miss 20-yard line and calls a screen for running back Chris Rodriguez.

Ole Miss nose tackle JJ Pegues is lined up over the center, as noted here.

As the play develops, Rodriguez catches the pass and gets going downhill at the 24-yard line. Pegues, who is not as fast as Rodriguez, is around the 18.5-yard line in the middle of the field. At this point, no one would expect an interior lineman to be involved in the play.

However, Pegues makes a choice. Instead of assuming someone else will get there first, he chooses to turn on 400-horsepower motor and tries to run Rodrigues down, which he does at the six-yard line.

Kentucky scored on the next play, but by choosing to not give up, Pegues gave himself and his teammates another chance to make a play that could’ve kept the Wildcats from scoring.

The second example comes from Kentucky’s last series where there was 100 percent NEVER A DOUBT NO SIR about getting a stop. The Wildcats have it third and two at their own 43 and call a wide receiver screen for the speedy Barion Brown. Related, stop kicking to him!

Here are Brown and Ole Miss defensive back Deantre Prince before the snap:

Like the previous example, Brown catches the ball and gets himself going downhill in a hurry. Note where Prince is when Brown starts accelerating.

He’s getting blocked and not part of the play. This will be of note in a minute.

A pair of defenders miss a tackle and linebacker Troy Brown overruns the play, leaving the Kentucky Brown an open backside angle to the sideline and end zone. At this moment, Prince, like Pegues, makes a choice.

He recognizes the danger and chooses to max out his effort. In fact, we can pinpoint the exact moment he makes the choice to try to run down Brown.

That’s him engaging wide-ass open throttle mode. Just above him is safety Isheem Young, who is the last line of defense. Young also deserves credit for not giving up on the play, even when his angle on Brown isn’t going to be enough to catch him.

Where is Prince as this is going on? While not on the screen, he is chasing down the fastest guy on the field and reappears some 25 yards later.

He has the angle on Brown, who slows down in an attempt to cut in behind Prince, but that gives Young enough time to close the gap and make the tackle with Prince.

Kentucky was later called for an illegal shift, which was followed by the aforementioned Jared Ivey’s strip/sack that ended the game.

Prince’s effort gave Ole Miss a chance to make a play that could change the game, and they did it.

Second-half offense: 1,000-yard stare

Granted, Kentucky’s style of play shortened the second half, as Ole Miss only had four meaningful possessions (the fifth was taking knees to end the game), but three points is not ideal, especially after getting inside the Kentucky 10-yard line twice.

A touchdown on the second trip inside the 10 would’ve put them up 10 with about 10 minutes to play, which was likely enough to coast to the finish line. ALAS.

I suppose the positive takeaway is that they had opportunities to score 14 rather than not sniffing any points, but as mentioned above, two straight games without second-half touchdowns is not a sustainable formula as SEC play continues.

What We Kinda Know

Offensive identity

While the offense is approaching They Are Who They Are™ territory, I don’t think we can give them that official designation just yet. Kiffin clearly wants to lean on the run game, as he is not willing (at this point) to ask Jaxson Dart to explore the space with his arm.

However, with the return of Jaylon Robinson and Dart getting more comfortable, as well as making fewer mistakes, maybe the offense becomes a little more aggressive as the season progresses. And let us not forget Malik Heath could be developing into a problem for opposing defenses.

There’s also the issue of running back health. So far, Quinshon Judkins is the only one of the Judkins, Zach Evans, and Ulysses Bentley IV trio to stay healthy. If all three get healthy, rotate, and stay fresh throughout a game, the running game seemingly gets more dynamic and opens opportunities in the passing game.

TL/DR; It’s possible the offense gets better as the season goes on, but we’re in a bit of a holding pattern right now as we continue to wait for a healthy version of it.

Jaxson Dart, quarterback

Right now, Dart is more of a game manager, which, given that he just made his seventh start in college, is maybe where he should be? Probably not reasonable to ask a guy who hasn’t played a full year of college football to throw 30+ times a game and carry an offense.

Obviously, he’s got a strong arm, mobility, and a natural running ability, but Kiffin seems content to harness some of that for now. Most likely due to a strong running game (in which Dart participates) and a defense that he’s been able to lean on since November of last year.

The main point being, which goes against so many #narratives, is that Lane Kiffin, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty Two, is possibly dabbling in the field of risk aversion.

Offensive line roll call

A list of linemen Ole Miss coaches are comfortable playing against quality opponents:

  • Caleb Warren
  • Micah Pettus
  • Nick Broeker
  • Jayden Williams
  • Eli Acker
  • Jeremy James

I don’t do math, but that tells me there are six guys right now. Earlier in the season in this space, I said that at least eight is ideal, and a doomsday scenario is five or six guys. Welcome to that scenario!

Ole Miss is now an injury or two away up front from not having a real good time. If there is a positive, Pettus was on no one’s radar before his start at right tackle against Kentucky. After a shaky start, he turned in a good performance, so maybe there’s a chance another guy or two could be ready when called upon (MAYBE).

One thing Kiffin mentioned on Monday is that because there is so little rotation during the game, these linemen are playing almost every offensive snap. That means they’re certainly running on fumes in the fourth quarter, which could play a role in offensive production in the second half.

The best way to avoid that would be more depth, but it’s unclear if that’s realistic in 2022, and I kinda hate it!

What We Don’t Know

Improvement on offense

Is it possible they become a more complete offense as the year goes on? Or do they lean into the grind it out approach, knowing that Alabama is the only monster on the schedule?

Offensive line

Is there an attempt to expand the rotation to keep guys from wearing down as the season goes on? Or is that not possible and the offensive line has become They Are Who They Are™?

Can the defense maintain?

They’re undersized and going to rely on havoc plays (sacks/tackle for a loss), sound tackling, effort, and being where they’re supposed to be. So far, so good.

As mentioned earlier, I realize they’ve turned in the same performances since late last year, BUT I STILL GET NERVOUS .