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LATE STRUGGLES: Rebels looking to shore up third-down defense

Ole Miss isn’t having much trouble getting opposing offenses to third down. Getting them off the field is a different story.

The third-ranked Rebels’ defense has played a whopping 186 snaps the last two weeks with teams keeping drives alive by often converting on the do-or-die down. Alabama picked up the necessary yardage on more than half of its third downs (11 of 20) against the Rebels while Vanderbilt’s offense nearly reached the 50-percent mark, converting on 10 of its 22 opportunities.

Ole Miss is allowing teams to convert 37.8 percent of time for the season. Only Arkansas and Auburn are worse in the Southeastern Conference.

Offenses only converted 33 percent of the time against the Rebels last season, a figure that ranked 12th nationally. This year’s sample size is small, but Ole Miss (4-0, 2-0 SEC) clearly has work to do.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson said.

Most of Alabama’s conversions came during its furious second-half rally as the Crimson Tide scored 20 points in the fourth quarter against a fatigued defense as the Rebels wanted their first-teamers on the field for a majority of a game of that magnitude. Ole Miss started mixing in substitutes early against Vanderbilt to keep players fresh, but the communication took a hit as the Commodores converted five of their first seven first downs, all five coming on a 19-yard scoring drive that resulted in a 3-0 lead — Ole Miss’ first deficit of the season.

“A couple of times, we didn’t get the call in quite fast enough,” Johnson said. “A couple of times, we were out of position. Getting the wrong checks or we’re checking to something, and everybody is not getting the whole check.”

Underneath holes
Ole Miss on Saturday didn’t have Huskie Tony Conner, who will miss at least the next three games with the surgically repaired meniscus in his knee, and Vanderbilt exploited some of the breakdowns in underneath coverage by replacements A.J. Moore and Zedrick Woods. Four of the Commodores’ third-down conversions went to tight end Steven Scheu, who often got free in the middle of the field for a season-high five catches.

But the loose coverages weren’t limited to Conner’s understudies.

“We’ve got to get that corrected for sure,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Sometimes it was (line)backers, sometimes it was the Huskies, sometimes it was the safeties not on the same page. Sometimes it was us making a bad call at the wrong time. So it was a combination of things.”

Said safety Mike Hilton, “It just comes with preparation in practice and making sure we know where the sticks are, playing the sticks and challenging receivers.”

The defensive line is also drawing extra attention, making it difficult to help the back seven with third-down pressure. Freeze said his front four is collapsing the pocket “quite a bit,” but maximum protections and quick timing throws aren’t allowing much of a rush to develop.

“The effort from our guys is there,” Freeze said.

Ole Miss tightened up the third-down opposition as the game wore on, stopping the Commodores short on 10 of their final 15 attempts. The Rebels are preparing to go against a Florida offense that’s converting at just a 35.2-percent clip on third down, worst in the SEC.

But the Rebels know they have to starting doing their part if they want to get off the field more frequently.

“We’ve got to get everybody and 11 guys there on third downs to be locked in,” Johnson said. “That’s something we talked about on Sunday, and that’s a big, big emphasis for us this week is to get better on third down.”