Notes from the Sideline: Ole Miss Defense Outplays Aggies in Rebels’ 29-19 Win
OXFORD, Miss. — On Saturday night in Oxford, the then-No. 11 Aggies came calling on the Ole Miss Rebels. They did so on a day that saw ESPN’s GameDay set up in The Grove to witness the best tailgate in America. To say the environment was electric is an understatement.
You've outdone yourself once again 😍 pic.twitter.com/S69lwxpH7f
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 13, 2021
As a photographer for The Rebel Walk, I am lucky enough to roam the sidelines and see the game at field level. Here are my thoughts on the Rebels’ 29-19 win over Texas A&M.
The much-heralded Aggie defense entered the contest as the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, second only to No. 1 Georgia, giving up an average of just 14.7 points per game. They would give up almost double that to Ole Miss.
While A&M was tough inside the red zone, the Rebels had their way between the twenties, compiling a total of 504 yards of total offense on the night.
Ole Miss brought a very balanced attack to Vaught-Hemingway — 257 yards through the air and 247 on the ground — and moved the ball at will for pretty much the whole night.
Ole Miss Defense
Simply put, not enough can be said about this group. They have grown into a cohesive unit over the year, and it has been fun to watch. They took everything A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher and his Aggies could throw at them and never missed a beat.
The unit took a blow in the first two minutes of the third quarter when defensive back Jake Springer was lost to a targeting call. Head coach Lane Kiffin has repeatedly told us, and we’ve seen it for ourselves throughout the season, just how valuable Springer is to the defense.
But the Rebs continued undeterred. They manned up without one of their biggest playmakers and continued to hold the Aggies at bay.
On the night, Ole Miss gave up 378 yards of total offense. Defenders swarmed to the ball all night long. When A&M did move the ball, they were kept out of the end zone on all but one occasion.
Well done, Rebel players and coaches!
Biggest Plays of the Game
Many times over the past few years, this distinction has gone to the offensive side of the ball. However, Saturday night it was the defense who produced the biggest plays of the game.
Here are four key plays of the game from my vantage point.
First: The Safety
No one would underestimate the importance of the safety that gave Ole Miss a 15-0 lead over A&M.
Late in the second quarter, Ole Miss would march down the field but would be unable to score, turning the ball over on downs after going for it on fourth. Momentum is a crazy thing, and the Rebels didn’t have it at that moment. But they would get points one play later via a safety as Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson hit Aggie running back Isaiah Spiller in the end zone to give the ball right back to the offense.
🚨 OLE MISS SAFETY 🚨 pic.twitter.com/MlorLKnSUs
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 14, 2021
At that time, it was a great stand after the stalled Ole Miss drive. Later during the second half when the Aggies were rallying, this safety was the only thing that stood between a tie and the Rebels still holding the lead, 15-13.
Second: Cistrunk’s INT
The next biggest play of the game came in the form of Ashanti Cistrunk’s interception of Aggie QB Zach Calzada. Texas A&M began the drive at their own 12-yard line with 7:08 left to play in the game with the Rebels still holding that slim 15-13 lead.
Two plays into the drive, Cistrunk came away with Ole Miss’ first turnover of the night, setting the Rebels’ offense up with a great chance to pull away.
PICKED! Ball bounces off the receiver's hands and Ashanti Cistrunk picks it off for Ole Miss! pic.twitter.com/1TjNHAiDHK
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTBVids_YT) November 14, 2021
Running back Snoop Conner ran straight ahead for a 13-yard score and following the PAT, Ole Miss had a 22-13 lead with 6:32 left in the game.
Third: A.J. Finley’s Pick Six
On A&M’s next drive, the Rebel defense made another huge play, and this one sealed the game for good.
On 3rd-and-10 from the Aggie 35, defensive back AJ Finley jumped a route, picked off Calzada, and took the ball 52-yards the other way for an Ole Miss touchdown, the first pix-six for the Rebels since 2018.
Speed kills. pic.twitter.com/PTx0slgpTj
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) November 14, 2021
That stretched the Ole Miss lead to 29-13.
Fourth: Defensive Stop of Two-Point Conversion
The Aggies took the ball down the field and scored quickly to draw the game to 29-19 with just 3:11 remaining in the game. A two-point conversion would have cut it to a one-possession game, but the Rebel defense held up on the two-point attempt and kept the lead at 10 — which proved to be the final score.
Injuries and Suspensions (Targeting)
I haven’t seen a team embrace the next-man-up policy as well as the 2021 Rebels. That starts with leadership; it’s a mentality and Ole Miss not only has it, but embraces it.
Injuries are a tale of bad news and somewhat good news. The bad news is players who’ve worked hard to get there are now sidelined and your team is without its front-line guys. But the good news is you are frequently able to develop depth that will help you down the road.
As the Rebels continue to work on getting healthy, they are going to be very tough to deal with. For example, although he didn’t play, wide receiver Jonathan Mingo was dressed out last night after having missed a good portion of the season with a broken bone in his foot. Braylon Sanders and Dontario Drummond, each also out with injuries over the last several weeks, were also back in the lineup.
Earlier this week, Coach Kiffin noted that the Rebels could be the most-improved team in the country by bowl season, simply because they should have some key players healthy by then.
Last night, we lost Springer early in third quarter to a targeting call, but because of his injury earlier this season, other guys were forced to step up and play, and play they did! Three of the biggest defensive plays were made after Springer left the game. He will be back to wreak havoc in second half of next Saturday’s Vandy game.
Bowl Season Looms
I saw a couple of representatives from the Peach Bowl roaming the sidelines last night. There’s also talk the Rebels could end up in the Sugar Bowl, or as one new projection suggests today, the Fiesta Bowl.
Wherever they end up, just know this Ole Miss group is focused, tough, and looking to finish the season strong!
(Feature image credit: Dan Anderson, The Rebel Walk)
Dan Anderson is a photographer and writer for The Rebel Walk. In addition to his work covering Ole Miss football and baseball for The Rebel Walk, Dan has written for a number of newspapers and has experience as a public address announcer, handling both play-by-play and color commentary. Dan has been involved with athletics as a player, coach or parent for 40 years, and brings this unique perspective to his coverage, whether through his lens or with his pen.