Ole Miss’ blowout loss to Alabama exposes same old flaws

Published 1:21 am Sunday, October 1, 2017

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There were signs that what happened inside Bryant-Denny Stadium late Saturday night was coming.

Despite talk from coaches and players of better push from an experienced offensive line and confidence in Jordan Wilkins and the other options in the backfield, Ole Miss hasn’t been able to run the ball consistently. And despite chatter of a bounceback year for a defensive line that underperformed last season and improvement at linebacker, the Rebels haven’t stopped much of anything on the ground.

Yet despite South Alabama, Tennessee Martin and Cal averaging nearly 26 points against the Rebels, quarterback Shea Patterson and the nation’s fourth-ranked passing offense put a Band-Aid on those sore spots to help Ole Miss get through the season’s first month with a winning record.

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No. 1 Alabama ripped those wounds wide open late Saturday night.

The Crimson Tide ran over, around and through Ole Miss, dominating from the start in a 66-3 win that hasn’t been this lopsided in the series in decades. Alabama kept its momentum on the ground going from a Nick Saban-era-best 496 rushing yards the previous week against Vanderbilt by racking up 365 rushing yards and averaging a whopping 7.2 yards per carry.

A big reason for Ole Miss’ offensive success against the Tide the previous three seasons was a combined six touchdown passes of at least 24 yards in those games, but the Rebels’ normally explosive passing offense needed help with Patterson being harassed into completing less than half his passes for a season-low 165 yards. It once again didn’t get much from a running game that’s dead last in the Southeastern Conference.

Alabama, which has now won 26 regular-season games in a row since its loss to Ole Miss in 2015 that seems more like decades ago, makes a lot of teams look worse than they are, but the Tide simply further exposed trends for the Rebels that are becoming par for the course.

UTEP was the only FBS team rushing for less yards a game than Ole Miss entering Saturday, a year after the Rebels finished 12th in the SEC in rushing. Ole Miss’ 88 net yards will actually improve its 69.7-yard average, but it wasn’t nearly consistent enough. Jordan Wilkins ran for 101 yards, but 65 of those came on two carries with the Rebels averaging less than a yard on their other 24 attempts.

So Alabama eventually pinned its collective ears back and got after Patterson, who was sacked five times, chased out of the pocket too many other times to count and threw two more interceptions, including a pick-six during Alabama’s 35-point first half.

A year after finishing 120th nationally against the run, Ole Miss is 95th and tumbling in that category this season after Alabama had an easy go of it Saturday. Ole Miss missed its usual share of tackles, but Jalen Hurts, Damien Harris and the rest of Alabama’s ball carriers usually weren’t touched until they were through the line with the defensive line and the second level being out of position more times than not.

Even offenses as talented as Ole Miss’ out wide are going to have a hard time moving the ball when it’s backed up and predictable, which also became an issue last season. It’s going to be equally as hard to stop any offense when you can’t force them into predictable downs and distances from time to time.

What can Ole Miss do to fix it?

The Rebels can’t bring in new players midseason, so the Rebels are stuck with what they have on the roster to try to find solutions. That could mean personnel changes, but the personnel is part of the problem. Recruiting misses by former coach Hugh Freeze and his staff along the offensive line and at running back and linebacker continue to be glaring in what’s arguably the nation’s most talented conference.

But the Rebels have to try something with the bulk of their league slate remaining starting with a trip to No. 13 Auburn next Saturday. Teams are going to continue to pick at Ole Miss’ wounds until the Rebels show they can stop some of the bleeding.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer for the EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.