On a beautiful 70-degree, early September morning, the Ole Miss Rebels took the field in front of a fairly sparse 11 a.m. showing at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. After a definitive offensive performance against South Alabama in week one, head coach Matt Luke came into the day looking for defensive depth and efficiency against the UT Martin Skyhawks.
“I think the glaring thing [last week] was missed tackles, then a little bit too big of a drop-off from the ones to the twos,” Luke said coming into the matchup. “I want to see some guys step up there when we watch the tape. We really have a challenge there to build our depth.”
Out of the gate, it appeared as though nothing had changed. After Ole Miss elected to defer to the second half, UT Martin, led primarily by running backs Ladarius Galloway and Marquez Grayson, drove the first possession of the game right down the field. Following a wide-open play-action out route to wide receiver Chris Philpott that set up first and goal, UT Martin’s quarterback Troy Cook kept the option himself and scored. Seven plays, 75 yards later, the Skyhawks had an early 6-0 lead.
“(After the score I told them) it’s a carbon copy of how we practiced on Tuesday; we came out slow,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “I told them, ‘We aren’t good enough to spot anybody points. Let’s come out with energy because I trust y’all to get this fixed.’”
As the first quarter continued, it was clear it was not only the defense but both sides of the ball that came out flat. On the Rebels’ first drive, a rare Shea Patterson interception (his only of the game) gave the Skyhawks the ball in a position to score, but the Rebel defense was able to hold them to a field goal.
In a 10-0 hole, the offense stepped up and put the ball in the end zone, reapplying pressure on the defense. And for the first time all game, it responded. Defensive back A.J. Moore came flying off the edge for a 10-yard sack that left UT Martin deep in its own territory and ultimately forced to punt.
But the momentum didn’t last long.
Keeping with the theme of the day, the Rebel defense failed to wrap up Galloway once more, letting him scamper for 59 yards before Marquez Grayson found a hole and put the Skyhawks on the board once more.
“I thought we played a little bit sloppy today,” Luke said. “We have to go back, have to look at it and have to improve.”
Coming out of halftime with a one-point lead, the offense boomed, while the defense improved but remained a question mark for the Rebels. Only giving up six points in the second 30 minutes, it was clear that defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff made some adjustments in the locker room.
“When (the Skyhawks) were running their inside zone, they weren’t double-teaming our three technique. They were blocking straight up to the linebacker,” linebacker DeMarquis Gates said. “But other than that, we just had to play our defense and finish the game out strong.”
Working alongside Victor Evans, Moore and Marquis Haynes, who all had seven tackles, Gates, with nine tackles on the day, was one of the bright spots for the Rebel defense.
“He was really into the game,” McGriff said. “Talking through adjustments, through tough situations. He stepped up.”
Evans, whose 6-foot-3-inch frame caused quite the disruption at the defensive end position, was not a surprise to McGriff, either.
“I’ve been waiting on that,” he said. “He’s a guy I said at the beginning of training camp, and at the end that he’d become a household name. You’ll see more of 14.”
While the defense struggled in the first half, a peek of the Landsharks the Ole Miss faithful have grown to know and love returned. Heading on the road to a tough Pac-12 offense in the California Berkley Golden Bears, it’s clear the coaching staff will preach wrapping up and tackling.
“You just have to keep working it and keep working it and keep working it,” Luke said. “Populating the football is key. Getting a lot of hats to the ball is key. Besides practicing it, we just have to go back to the fundamentals and go to work.”