Luke, Rebels squander opportunity for signature win in loss to Texas A&M

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PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
  • Story by SportsTalk Mississippi Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee

Ole Miss let another one slip away in a 24-17 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday.

 It’s a defeat that manifested in missed opportunities, essentially expelled any postseason chances and once again left  Matt Luke wondering what could have been.

Again, this loss wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. Such a refrain has become a troubling theme for a young football team learning the rigors of the SEC and the razor-thin margin between victory and defeat.

Texas A&M was 3-of-13 on third downs and compiled 68 fewer yards than the Rebels and turned the football over twice. Offensive dysfunction spoiled a valiant effort from a defense that rebounded from its worst performance of the season in a loss at Missouri last week. 

“I am sorry we came up short,” Luke said. “I thought the defense played their guts out and gave us a chance to win the football game. We just didn’t make enough plays on offense. The turnovers were huge.”

Both Ole Miss turnovers came in a third quarter that began with promise but ended in turmoil. The Rebels scored a touchdown on their first possession out of halftime. A five-play, 65-yard march with both quarterbacks contributing in what was really the only coherent sequence from this two-signal caller attack. Scottie Phillips broke a 38-yard rush and caught a beautifully thrown pass from Matt Corral three plays later that got the unit inside the two yard line. Snoop Conner finished it off with a two-yard touchdown rush to give Ole Miss a 14-10 lead.

“I thought we did some decent things offensively,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “We had plenty of opportunities. We have to make some better play calls and we have to execute better. I thought the effort was there, just the execution wasn’t. That is frustrating.”

Outside of that drive, the Rebels generated little consistent success. John Rhys Plumlee commanded the first four drives of the game. That didn’t work. It resulted in three punts, one first down and a 69-yard touchdown rush from Jerrion Ealy who later exited the game with an illness. Corral began to rotate in periodically after that. The way in which the two quarterbacks were used was perplexing. Once the rotation began, Plumlee initially saw the majority of the snaps with Corral subbing in for a play or two at a time. That didn’t work. The two second-quarter drives netted a punt and a missed field goal.

Corral, regarded as a better thrower but an inferior runner to the fleet-footed Plumlee, was subbed in sporadically. One can only venture to wonder about the degree of difficulty that comes with entering the game off the bench, throwing a pass and returning to the bench. Did it affect the rhythm of both players?

“It’s based on certain plays we want to run, which ones they do better and trying to keep the defense off-balance,” Rodriguez said. “Listen, I don’t care what people think about playing tow quarterbacks, getting into a rhythm and all of that. They don’t understand how we work things. That’s not a concern of mine. We do it in practice all the time.”

The first drive of the third quarter flashed promise and ended in a favorable result. But with a chance to go up two scores after another stop from the defense, Plumlee fumbled the football at the Aggie 38-yard line. Middle linebacker Buddy Johnson scooped it up and ran it back 62-yards for a touchdown. The play swung the pendulum of the game more violently than any other. The defense netted two more stops to keep the Rebels in the game. Luke Logan missed another field goal and Corral under threw Elijah Moore on a fade route and Texas A&M middle linebacker Braden White snared it for an interception. The pair of blunders were too much to overcome.

“Matt just underthrew it,” Rodriguez said. “John Rhys will learn (from the fumble). People forget he is just a true freshman. Sometimes when something isn’t there, you need to avoid the big mistake. I have to do a better job helping them too. It’s just frustrating because we had some things there and just didn’t get it done when we needed to.”

Ole Miss totaled 26 combined yards on its first two drives of the fourth quarter and allowed Texas A&M an opportunity to issue the knockout blow, which it did in the form of a seven-play, 55-yard drive capped by a 22-yard touchdown rush from Isaiah Spiller. The Aggies led 24-14 with 3:57 left. The game was in hand. A defense that gave Ole Miss numerous chances to seize the game couldn’t muster one more stand. Mike MacInytre’s men held Texas A&M to 337 yards of offense. Kellen Mond was 16-of-28 for 172 with one touchdown pass and two picks. The Rebels consistently generated pressure on Mond and sacked him three times. Sam Williams accounted for 1.5 sacks. Lakia Henry led the team in tackles with nine.

“A pass rush is the best pass defense,” defensive coordinator MacIntyre said. “That is something we tried and have been working on. The kids did a great job with that.”

This game was mismanaged in a number of ways, perhaps most acutely underscored by the ineffective quarterback rotation. But the clock management at the end of the first half was poor. Luke burned his last timeout with 38 seconds left in the quarter prior to Texas A&M’s extra-point attempt to lobby for a review on a fairly obvious touchdown catch. Ole Miss’ ensuing drive was halted at the Aggie 44 by the clock. A timeout would’ve helped them get points. Both Luke and Rodriguez spoke after the game about doing a better job of putting their players in positions to succeed.

To be fair, the Rebels dealt with a slew of injuries offensively. Phillips left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. Ealy exited with an illness. Ben Brown and Eli Johnson suffered ankle ailments that put more stress on an already thin and inexperienced offensive line. But the offensive futility can’t be heavily attributed to that.

“I don’t have the answers,” said Phillips, who said his knee felt fine but will know more on Sunday. “Just keep doing what we are doing and trust ourselves.”

This loss was arguably the most damaging of the season, primarily because it cemented this team’s ceiling. The prospect of playing in the postseason is far-fetched, and frankly, while still mathematically possible, incredibly unlikely. Auburn and LSU loom on the schedule along with New Mexico State and floundering Mississippi State club. A 4-8 mark is very possible and 5-7 appears to now be the apex.

How does Luke sell his program? He’ll presumably have a new boss in the coming months as the school searches for an athletics director. It’s indisputable a foundation has been laid. Look at the contributors on the field. It’s nearly all teenagers. But this is a bottom-line industry and the only way Luke will be able to see this foundation come to fruition is generating results. 

“We talk about us needing to stick together,” Luke said. “There is no magic wand, no shortcuts or special formula. You have to keep coming together and continue to work hard. Eventually, you are going to make those plays. We have a young team that is going to continue to get better.

This 2019 campaign was always going to be a struggle with the looming effects of the half-decade long NCAA colonoscopy, new coordinators and a new quarterback But eventually, Luke is going to have to show progress in the form of victories despite it all. On Saturday, he let another opportunity slip away.

Catch Brian Scott Rippee’s postgame chat:


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