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The Cage Dive: Missed calls and dropped balls

Ole Miss football squandered multiple opportunities for success and lost to Auburn 35-28. It wasn’t pretty and it cannot happen again. How this team bounces back from the disappointing result will determine what the Rebels can be and how good the staff really is.

Here are the five major takeaways from a game that should have gone the other way:

Back to the quarterback.

Well well well, here we are again. The revolving door quarterback conversation that was at the forefront of the 2019 season returned to relevance on Saturday. Matt Corral entered the game with full confidence as the starting quarterback, despite his six interception performance against Arkansas last weekend. It was the right decision, but Lane Kiffin was vocal throughout the week about getting the ball to John Rhys Plumlee more often, calling him the most underutilized weapon in the SEC.

There simply weren’t enough touches to go around for Plumlee through the first three weeks of the season while Corral was cooking, and Kiffin stuck with his starter last weekend in an effort to keep his headspace. However, the narrative changed when Corral threw an interception on 3rd-and-goal to end Saturday’s first red zone opportunity. It was clear that the Southern California couldn’t see past the ghosts early on, so Kiffin tapped his backup.

Plumlee began Ole Miss’ second drive at quarterback, continued to rotate in throughout the first half and started the third quarter behind center. For a moment, it looked as though the Rebels were going to run a Connor Shaw/Stephen Garcia-esque two-quarterback system similar to the end of last season. And with a pair of touchdowns to show for it, it was working!

However, Plumlee just isn’t an SEC-caliber quarterback and putting him in the game telegraphs the run. Kiffin went back to Corral full-time for the majority of the second half and it was, again, the right decision. The redshirt sophomore finished the day 16/27 for 154 yards through the air, but made his money with 10 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. In comparison, Plumlee had a comparable eight carries for 48 yards, no touchdowns and completed one pass.

The offense struggled as a whole, but it was pretty apparent that the Plumlee conversation should be put to bed. With that being said, he is an extremely talented runner, a fantastic backup option, and finding space for him in a different capacity is something that would be welcomed. That just hasn’t come to fruition yet, and it may never.

Daps to the defense.

Before diving into the game, senior free safety Jaylon Jones did not see the field on Saturday due to an upper body injury and has officially been ruled out for the season. The Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner has earned every bit of the accolades he has received both on and off of the field, and his loss hurts. From a football standpoint and from a personal standpoint, it hurts.

Jones’ absence was not the only setback for D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge’s group on Saturday. The defense was hit hard by COVID-19 for the second-straight week and offensive players were forced to move to the other side of the ball. Miles Battle and Tylan Knight played played their guts out in the secondary. Give them a helmet sticker.

Despite being stretched significantly thin, the Landsharks did just about all they could. Giving up 465 yards of offense and five scores isn’t anything to write home about, but the success didn’t have to do with the numbers.

Auburn had the opportunity to go ahead on five separate occasions that could have swung the momentum in favor of the Tigers, but Ole Miss forced a punt. The athletes are not up to par with the rest of the conference, but the defense stepped up in some key moments to give the ball back to the offense, with the most important coming late in the fourth quarter.

There is a lot of work to be done, particularly on the recruiting trail, but considering the the game from start to finish and the COVID-19 circumstances, the defense did enough.

Oh, and Sam Williams is an NFL talent.

Play calling from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Kenny Yeboah’s 61-yard reception was the best play of the game and set up a touchdown.

Seriously, just look at it. Kenny Yeboah goes in motion to the short side and left guard Caleb Warren fakes like he is going to pull but drops into pass protection. He does a heck of a job sealing the edge for a play that is designed to look like a counter. Give him a helmet sticker.

Corral takes the snap and fakes the handoff. Everything looks like the play is designed for Snoop Conner to run beyond the right tackle behind Warren and Yeboah’s lead blocks. Instead, Yeboah slips to the sideline and runs a wheel route, losing everybody. Corral recognizes his wide open tight end right away and connected. Yeboah did the rest.

This play call from Jeff Lebby was pure brilliance, but the rest of the game was not so much.

There may not be specific moments to point to from a game plan standpoint, but the offense looked clunky the entire game. Tempo, timing and creativity is what makes Lebby’s system so successful and it never got going against Auburn. The Rebels scored 48 points against the Tide, and only 28 against the Tigers. That speaks wonders alone. When you couple the lack of points with a backfield that did did not see a runner go for 100 yards or more, and the fact that the team’s reception leader only had five catches, it makes you scratch your head.

Sure, the Rebels put up 283 yards on the ground, but Corral was the team’s leading rusher on primarily broken-play scrambles, Plumlee accounted for almost 50 of the yards gained in a capacity that proved largely ineffective outside of his game-long 37 yarder, and neither Conner nor Ealy were able to break one beyond 20 yards. For an offense that sustains long drives and holds time of possession, it may have been fine. For big-play offense that goes fast, it was not up to standard.

On the passing front, Corral threw for only 154 yards. 60 of them came on the Yeboah wheel route. Without that play, the Rebels didn’t break 100 yards passing. Elijah Moore had a team-high five catches for just 16 yards and there was not a single receiver (not including the tight end and his big gain) who surpassed 30 yards receiving. Yes, drop balls played a big factor, but it doesn’t matter. That won’t do.

In addition, and this can see fingers point at Kiffin, the clock management down the stretch looked like far too similar to the incompetence of Matt Luke. Ole Miss was driving with less than a minute left in plus-territory and Corral was forced to scramble over the middle. The clock kept running and Kiffin elected not to use a timeout. About 18 seconds came off of the clock before the next play was called, the clock eventually ran out and the game was over. More time is always better than less.

Game-changing plays went the other way.

Ole Miss had every chance to win this game. The win was well within reach and a few crucial moments cost the game. Let’s look at five in particular and start with Corral’s interception.

The Rebels forced a three-and-out on its first defensive possession of the game and kept the Tigers from scoring first. It was a big opportunity to get out in front and the offense drove 68 yards on 11 plays. Then came the pick. Corral stared down his receiver the whole way, looked only at Moore and threw an ill-advised ball. Moore ran a very bad route, but if that’s the case, don’t throw him the ball.

That touchdown, or field goal, would have been the first score of the game and put Ole Miss ahead. The opportunity was squandered.

After another important defensive stop in the third quarter (hell, give the whole defense a helmet sticker) a messy snap blew up the Tigers’ punt attempt and gave the Rebels great field position. Plumlee and the offense went three-and-out to set up 4th-and-five. Kiffin sent out the field goal unit and ran a fake that didn’t go so well.

The call wasn’t necessarily the issue. Leaving the offense on the field and going for it would have been fine. Even running the fake field goal may have been fine, under certain circumstances. It seemed like an odd time to make that decision and it resulted in at least a three-point deficit, assuming Logan made the kick. The field position was squandered.

Once again, Ole Miss’ defense did its job with five minutes left in the game and forced a punt. It resulted in positive field position and gave the offense a chance to go ahead by eight with a touchdown. Plumlee lost five yards on second down (sensing a theme?) and Dontario Drummond couldn’t move the chains on third down. Kiffin sent the offense onto the field for 4th-and-five at the 50-yard-line, but called a timeout and elected to punt. It seemed like a chance to put the foot on the gas and push. However, trusting the analytics is a big difference between the new head honcho and Luke, so if the book said to punt, punt. Either way, the three-and-out squandered the opportunity that the defense presented.

The most glaring issue was dropped balls, and two late incompletions may have been the difference in the game. On a drive near midfield late in the third quarter, Jonathan Mingo dropped an easy first down on 2nd-and-five. Corral was sacked on the next play and Ole Miss had to punt. It was a chance to take a 28-21 lead and it was squandered.

Lastly, with only eight seconds remaining, Yeboah dropped a pass over the middle. The replay showed he might had an opportunity to score. If he didn’t score, the first down would have stopped the clock and given Kiffin the chance to call a timeout with a second or two remaining. Instead of facing the final play from the Auburn 29-yard-line, if Yeboah had caught the ball and gone down, Ole Miss would have faced the final play from inside the Auburn 10-yard-line.

The game may have been over, and it may not have made a difference, but it was another chance to make a play that was squandered.

Pinky.

Win, lose or tie, his finger touched the ball.

Can anyone (other than the SEC) make legitimate case that his pinky did not touch the ball?

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