Saturday marks the final home game of the 2017 season for Ole Miss. Prior to the senior class taking the field for the final time at Vaught-Hemingway, sports editor Grayson Weir caught up with assistant sports editor Alex Miller of The Battalion and talked about the matchup against Texas A&M.
Grayson Weir: The biggest storyline in this game is the matchup between Ole Miss’ explosive pass offense and A&M’s prominent pass defense. How does A&M plan to expose an offense that has racked up 1,246 yards in the air since Jordan Ta’amu took over at quarterback just two games ago?
Alex Miller: The Ole Miss passing attack can definitely throw fits for the A&M defense. Ta’amu is averaging 14.5 yards per completion, and the Aggies have allowed 32 passing plays of 20-plus yards. I have said in earlier weeks that A&M must limit the big play to be competitive on defense, and Ole Miss may have the best receiving corps A&M has seen yet. A key factor will be if injured cornerback Charles Oliver, who has missed the last two games, can return for the Aggies this weekend.
GW: On the other hand, A&M’s defense has now given up more than 200 yards rushing in five games, and Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins has tallied 814 yards total offense since Week 4. Can the Aggies put a stop to his recent dominance out of the backfield?
AM: This is an interesting note because, at times, A&M has been able to defend the run well, but the Rebels’ passing attack may spread the field more and help them in the ground game. A&M likes to play Nickel defense against pass-oriented offenses, such as Ole Miss, which means fewer men in the box, but the Aggies’ linebacker play continues to improve with Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka. A balanced attack on offense from Ole Miss gives the Rebels a good chance to have success if they can spread out the A&M defense.
GW: A&M may lead the SEC and sit at fifth in the nation in team sacks, but the secondary has not shown the same prowess. Facing a big test against the Nasty Wide Outs this weekend, how do the Aggie corners and safeties fair?
AM: Injuries have really taken a toll on the A&M secondary this season, leaving the Aggies to play primarily underclassmen. Over the course of the season, they have continued to improve, but at times show that they are still freshmen. Fortunately, A&M boasts Armani Watts at safety, who ranks among the best skill defenders in the league. Now that A&M is in the home stretch of its season, can these freshmen defensive backs make the critical plays needed against a talented Ole Miss receiving corps to come away with an important road win.
GW: Offensively, the Aggies have seen a bit of resurgence with quarterback Nick Starkel, who threw for 416 yards and four touchdowns on 21 completions last weekend. However, total rushing yards fell short of 100. In what ways does offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone look to expose a fairly inconsistent Rebel defense?
AM: Last week, New Mexico continued to stack the box, which was effective in stopping the run, but had its defensive backs on islands, making it too easy for the Aggies to make plays downfield in the passing game, which resulted in the lopsided numbers. This week, I think it is critical that A&M establishes a firm run game, especially since Ole Miss allows more than 250 rushing yards per game. Having Starkel back definitely opens up the passing attack more, and like the Rebels, I find the Aggies having the most success this Saturday with a balanced offensive gameplan.
GW: Outside of wide receiver Christian Kirk, who is No. 20 on Mel Kiper’s big board for the 2017 NFL draft, is there a player to watch who may have a big day?
AM: Safety Armani Watts is definitely the one to watch, aside from Kirk. He and Kirk are best friends and the top leaders on the team. Watts is the quarterback of the defense and the one the Aggies depend on to make the important defensive plays when needed. He is second on the team in tackles and leads the team in interceptions. This game may have a little extra something to it for Watts, too, since he suffered a season-ending torn hamstring injury against the Rebels last year. This is a team a senior Watts has also never beaten before, so he will have added motivation, for sure.
GW: For A&M to come into Oxford and ruin Ole Miss’ final home game of 2017, what needs to happen? Prediction?
AM: This will come down to big plays. If A&M can have more big plays and contain Ta’amu while effectively running the ball itself, the Aggies will be in good shape to go home victorious. If not, it could be a long night in Oxford. The Rebels are hot as of late, but the Aggies need this one more. It will not be easy, but kicker Daniel LaCamera will be the difference-maker if called upon. Texas A&M 38, Ole Miss 35.