That Ole Miss took care of business against a bad Sun Belt team isn’t much of a story. What does carry weight is how quickly they separated themselves from the opening drive, despite valid concerns that this game could be somewhat interesting for at least a few quarters. After all, Matt Luke’s squad has had slow starts against worse teams this year.
In hindsight, the 18.5-point opening spread against the Ragin Cajuns was pretty soft, but the Rebels were also favored by less than 11 points by S&P+. The end result shouldn’t be seen as some triumph, but it’s a reminder that this team can still exceed expectations if they’re set low enough.
Over the last three games, the offense has been on a tear with a JUCO transfer under center. This group needs solid outings against Texas A&M and Mississippi State to form a lasting impression, but what they’ve done in the meantime shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Phil Longo’s group wasn’t all that much more efficient on Saturday than they were against Kentucky, but they generated more explosive plays, and reached the end zone every time they got inside the Cajuns’ 40-yard line.
The Wildcats’ defense did a decent job forcing Jordan Ta’amu to put together long drives and take what was available. Understandably, ULL couldn’t follow the same blueprint, and Ole Miss’ first five touchdown drives took an average of 6.6 plays. Three of those scores came on gains of 27 or more yards, but the offense also got the job done in the red zone when necessary — no other touchdown came from outside the 10.
The Cajuns may have come out of most of their drives empty-handed, but the fact that they got inside the Rebels’ 40 on six different occasions is enough of an indication that the defense hasn’t progressed under Wesley McGriff. It’s no longer even a rational impulse to get mad about this group — nothing was suddenly going to change under an inexperienced coordinator, and we probably should have known that all along. A stellar performance out of Ta’amu and the offense is but a prerequisite for this team to compete with anyone decent.
The numbers speak for themselves when looking at how Ole Miss jumped out to 28-0 lead. Ta’amu blew the game wide open by connecting on his first nine passes for 152 yards, and he didn’t throw an incomplete pass until they were up 21-0. The defense does deserve credit for allowing that lead to grow, forcing ULL to punt three consecutive times and start leaning on their less reliable passing attack.
The offense clearly took the foot off the pedal after halftime, running on 25 of their 31 plays in the second half. Despite their obvious intent to stick to the ground, this was Ole Miss’ most well-rounded game running the ball this season. It’s also worth pointing out that they performed well above average in passing downs again.
While they’d serve themselves well by avoiding these situations, the Rebel offense is 5th in passing downs S&P+ on the year. They would have been even better in this regard on Saturday, had they not run the ball as often as they did to wrap the game up.
If Ole Miss hadn’t scored on their first five drives, the Cajuns could have relied on their running game even more than they did. No one on the Rebels’ schedule, not even LSU, put up more than ULL’s 8.8 yards per carry. Granted, the majority of their successful runs came in garbage time.
While less than half of their total yardage came from big plays against Kentucky, Ole Miss was a bit more balanced between methodical ball movement and explosiveness this time around. ULL made up for their paltry 39 percent success rate by taking advantage of any slip-ups from McGriff’s group, gaining 30 or more yards four different times.
Sure, Ta’amu has put up crazy numbers against terrible defenses, but the damage he’s done on passing downs is impressive regardless of the opponent. Similar to the Arkansas game, some of his more productive drop-backs against the Cajuns were when it was close to obvious that he intended to pass.
A.J. Brown is pretty good at this football thing. The guy did damage on both downfield looks and the short screen game after the catch. The story of last week’s passing success was Ta’amu’s ability to find the open man, feeding five different receivers with five or more receptions. The ULL affair was a reminder that sometimes, it’s ok to just let your best player eat.
Jordan Wilkins didn’t do much with his opportunities in the second level last week, so he was due for that 51-yard burst in the first quarter. Pennamon offered up nice support and was more consistent in terms of getting out of the backfield. Fortunately, Ta’amu didn’t have to take off very much, and he served as enough of a running threat for the offense to maintain a numbers advantage.