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Questions surface again for Rebels’ defense

Ole Miss’ defense appeared as if it had cured some of the problems that had ailed it entering the season’s final month.

Then Saturday happened, and now nobody’s quite sure exactly what’s going on.

“I wish I knew,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “We’ll have to evaluate all of that weekly and after the year of course. We’re certainly struggling at times.”

Ole Miss allowed just 22 combined points in back-to-backs wins against Texas A&M and Auburn to keep itself in control of its destiny in the Southeastern Conference Western Division after Alabama, Florida, Memphis and even Vanderbilt spent the first half of the season picking the Rebels’ secondary apart. Those four teams averaged more than 417 yards against the Rebels, but Ole Miss got C.J. Johnson back against A&M and Robert Nkemdiche for Auburn and gave up more than 100 yards less on average against the Aggies and Tigers.

But even with the unit at full strength against Arkansas with nickel corner Tony Conner back on the field, Ole Miss has no answer for quarterback Brandon Allen and his plethora of tight ends and wideouts, who combined to shred the Rebels for 35 first downs, 605 yards and 53 points in Saturday’s overtime win that had Ole Miss’ coaches and players once again flummoxed.

“The defense gave up too many points,” safety Trae Elston said. “It’s crazy.”

Ole Miss opted to commit extra defenders to the box most of the time in an attempt to slow down Arkansas running Alex Collins, who wasn’t much of a factor until the fourth quarter. But that left cornerbacks Tony Bridges, Kendarius Webster and, at times, Mike Hilton in man coverage, and the Rebels couldn’t keep up with Allen finding open receiver after open receiver to the tune of a career-high 442 yards and six touchdowns.

“Our secondary, we’ve got to win one-on-ones,” Elston said. “Arkansas’ players, they were catching our eyes, the secondary’s eyes, and not doing our assignments. That’s what we had to do to beat them, and we didn’t do that.”

Arkansas didn’t get to third down much because of all its big plays, but Ole Miss rarely got off the field then with the Razorbacks converting more than half the time (7 of 13) after A&M and Auburn combined to go just 8 of 35 on the deciding down.

Why is a group that’s finally healthy with more than half its starters back and a pair of future high-round draft picks in the lineup so good one week and so bad the next?

“It’s a good question,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “You face so many different scenarios, you just have to be able to execute, take it one play at a time and go out there and compete. If I had the answer to that … we’ve just got to watch the film and see.”

And it’s not going to get any easier over the final three weeks.

The Rebels get a week to rest up before LSU and its Heisman contender, Leonard Fournette, come to Oxford on Nov. 21. A trip to Starkville to duel with Dak Prescott and Mississippi State awaits the week after.

Ole Miss has to win those games and hope Mississippi State or Auburn can pull off an upset of Alabama to play for an SEC championship, but the first part of that equation looks dicey with a defense that’s once again searching for answers.