HOUSTON, Texas — One year ago, with my camera in hand, I stood on the sideline of the Rebels’ first football game of the year–against South Alabama–anticipating the beginning of the season. How would the team look? In what ways would the coaching change affect the players? What would the Longo offense look like? How would the “Crime Dawg” defense perform? Would the Rebels be able to withstand the pressure and uncertainty of continued NCAA scrutiny?
Ironically, this past Saturday Ole Miss won the first game of 2018–a 47-27 win over Texas Tech in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff Classic– by the identical score of the 2017 season-opening win over South Alabama.
Very early in that 2017 season, head coach Matt Luke made it clear he planned to change the culture of the Ole Miss football program. Yes, I know some will consider that “coach-speak,” but from the opening kickoff against South Alabama, Luke’s team clearly seemed to embrace the coach’s vision.
At SEC Media Days in Atlanta earlier this summer, senior center Sean Rawlings explained that his coach changed the culture “in less than a month.”
When Coach Luke took the podium to give his opening statement at the annual conference gathering, he addressed the culture shift. “I really see the culture of our team continue to build,” he said. “I really feel like all of the experiences these young men have gone through have really brought them together as a team. So I really, really like the culture in our locker room right now.”
As we entered the 2018 season-opener against Texas Tech, I was curious if I would see evidence of this culture change. I wondered if last year’s performance was perhaps based on players and coaches just trying to survive and get through a tough time together—something akin to survival mode—or if the new philosophy had caught hold and was becoming permanent.
Saturday definitely proved the latter to me. Coach Luke and his staff have changed the culture in Oxford, and this paradigm shift is one that will continue to improve the program, both on and off the field.
For this edition of my weekly “Notes from the Sideline,” I am going to borrow the acronym used by many of our Ole Miss sports teams — R.E.B.E.L.S. — to describe what I saw in the season opener.
R – Resilience
E – Effort
B – Belief
E – Endurance
L – Longo
S – Scoring
In 2017, though they fought valiantly in all of their games, the Rebels were not always able to be as resilient as is necessary.
Arkansas, 2017: For example, turn back the clock to last year’s Arkansas game. In the second quarter, the Rebels were rolling, ahead 31-7, and the Hogs were reeling. But after an Ole Miss fumble with 8:28 left before the half, Arkansas went on a 10-play, 70-yard drive that culminated with a Razorbacks’ touchdown with 2:40 left before intermission that cut the Ole Miss lead to 31-14.
On their ensuing drive, the Rebels tried to answer, but they suffered an interception with just 1:08 left on the clock before halftime. The Hogs took advantage of the turnover and scored another TD to go into the break only trailing Ole Miss by ten, 31-21. And as we all recall, the Rebels were outscored 17-6 in the second half en route to a 38-37, last-second, heartbreaking loss to the Razorbacks.
Texas Tech, 2018: But let’s now look back at this past Saturday’s game. Ole Miss was again rolling, holding a 27-10 lead, when the Red Raiders scored a touchdown with 1:57 left in the half that cut the Ole Miss advantage to 27-17.
How did the Rebels respond? Well, quarterback Jordan Ta’amu simply led a perfectly-executed, two-minute drive that culminated in an Ole Miss field goal and a 30-17 Rebels’ lead heading into halftime.
In the second half, the Rebels outscored Tech 17-10 and held the Red Raiders scoreless in the all-important fourth quarter to preserve the 47-27 victory.
Ole Miss’ resiliency was on point Saturday in Houston.
No one can ever question the effort of a Matt Luke-coached team. Last season they played hard all the time, regardless of the score and regardless of all the noise surrounding the program via the NCAA investigation and impending penalties.
This year, however, in addition to that relentless effort, there’s something extra the Rebs seem to have. Not only did I see the Ole Miss defense play with continuous effort Saturday in NRG Stadium, but I also saw the unit play with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
For example, at the 7:07 mark of the third quarter, running back Scottie Phillips took it 65 yards to the house, giving the Rebels a 37-20 lead. But the Red Raiders responded, promptly driving down the field and scoring on a 9-yard TD run by Da’Leon Ward.
That cut the Ole Miss lead to 37-27 with 5:30 to go in the period.
As the defense left the field following that Tech score, I happened to be standing by their bench. It was apparent to anyone watching that the Ole Miss players took that touchdown personally. I could see from the looks on their faces they were not happy.
It must have been apparent to Coach Luke, as well. I watched him go over to the defensive bench and talk to each one of the players. He was not chewing them out. On the contrary–he appeared to be telling them that everything was okay and to just get ready for the next series and get after them.
That’s exactly what happened—as Tech never scored again past that 5:30 mark of the third quarter.
Winning is contagious, and sometimes half the battle is just believing you can win. This group came out of the tunnel Saturday with a look in their eyes that indicated they planned on winning. To anyone who wants to question how good of a team Texas Tech is—don’t fool yourselves; the Red Raiders WILL put up points all season long.
The question was not if head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s team was going to score, but how many they would score.
The Ole Miss coaches have instilled in their players a belief in the system they are running. They’ve had a year to coach it, and the players have had a year to learn it—and, more importantly, they have bought in to what the coaches are asking of them.
Video: Ole Miss LB Mohamed Sanogo talks with the media after the win over Tech and expresses the confidence the defense has in its ability to make plays.
The hardest part of coaching defensive football is getting guys to realize that they each have a job to do, and if they collectively do their jobs, their defense will be successful. The front seven have gap responsibility, and they have to trust in their responsibilities and not try to be a one-man show. Ole Miss only gave up 164 total yards rushing to a Red Raiders team that used a variety of means to run the ball, including a great deal of deception.
The Rebels’ defense maintained its integrity and did a super job of holding the rushing game in check. Are there things they need to work on? Of course. There are always are, especially after the initial game of the season. But these kids believe in their system AND each other.
Never underestimate the power of believing.
With the explosion of offenses in college football, endurance has become a much more integral part of the game. Endurance begins with depth. Your starters can only go so long, so it is imperative to have quality depth on both sides of the ball in order to be able to compete for the entire sixty minutes.
Let’s step back in time, once again, and look at last year’s game against Cal. The Rebels looked good moving the ball—until center Sean Rawlings — the stalwart of the offensive line — went down with an injury. The limited depth on the offensive line at that point (back-up center Eli Johnson had gone down with a knee injury a week before in the UT_Martin game) played a role in the offense sputtering a bit in the rest of the game.
On consecutive plays Saturday against Tech, we saw a starter on the offensive line forced to head to the sidelines due to injury. First, it was Rawlings, then right tackle Alex Givens. Ole Miss was without two anchors on the line for a little while. In a game that could have been a shoot-out, that might have meant trouble.
But other players stepped in, and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Injuries are going to happen in football, but how much quality depth, thus endurance, you have will determine what kind of season you will have.
Last year when offensive coordinator Phil Longo was hired, he brought in a new system. All he did in his first season was coach his quarterbacks to 3,941 yards through the air, produce a 1000-yard rusher, and design an offensive scheme that averaged 462 yards per game of total offense.
That would be a fantastic start in the best of situations, but given all the uncertainty, distractions, and pressure in the program last season, it was a phenomenal start.
So while the Red Raiders’ defense is not the Steel Curtain of the 70’s Pittsburgh teams, it does return ten starters off last year’s unit that led the Big 12 in takeaways. The Tech defense also had three Preseason All-Big 12 players on its unit, a linebacker and two defensive backs.
And Ole Miss still notched 47 points.
Jordan Ta’amu threw for 336 yards with a QBR of 132.3. Scottie Phillips ran for 204 yards on 16 carries, the first Rebel to do so since 2010.
A.J. Brown finished with 7 receptions for 93 yards and one TD; DaMarkus Lodge caught 6 passes for 96 yards; D.K. Metcalf hauled in 4 for 81 yards and one TD; and Braylon Sanders caught 4 for 60 yards as the Rebels rolled up 546 yards of total offense.
If Saturday’s start is any indication of things to come, the 2018 Rebel offense will again flourish under Longo’s tutelage.
Everyone knows Ole Miss is going to score this season; that’s not in doubt. The only question is if the defense will hold opponents to fewer points? I was intrigued as I watched the defense Saturday. Yes, the Red Raiders scored, but they averaged less than one touchdown per quarter. I am willing to bet Kingsbury’s bunch will score more than that per game the remainder of the season.
The key to defense, at least in my book, is to force the opponent into third down situations and see how you perform. Usually, what happens in those situations dictates the outcome of the game. The Rebels forced the Red Raiders into 19 third-down situations and stopped them 11 times. Tech also tried its luck on three separate 4th downs and came up empty on all three.
The Ole Miss defense held the Red Raiders 8-for-22 on downs that were drive-continuing situations. If the defense continues to perform like that, the opponents’ scoring will be held in check and the Rebels will have a fine season.
I look forward this coming Saturday to seeing more of the R.E.B.E.L.S as Ole Miss takes on Southern Illinois in the home opener. There is a resiliency in this team that leads me to believe they will handle whatever obstacles cross their path this season. Their effort is unmatched, their belief in themselves is obvious, and their endurance is noticeable. With Coach Longo’s offensive scheme, this team will score and score and score. And with the defense’s familiarity with Coach McGriff’s system, coupled with a “play the next play” mentality, this unit should surprise some folks.
After Saturday’s win, Coach Luke explained to reporters assembled for his postgame press conference what he always tells his team.
“What I’ve been preaching to them is that we get 12 opportunities together. That’s what we get, and we want to take it one at a time and take advantage of the time that we have together.“
Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke
Matt Luke’s culture change is alive and well in this team. Go see for yourself–kickoff is at 3:00 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway.