Two games into the season, Ole Miss football has been lackluster on defense. Evident in the low number of sacks against South Alabama and the University of Tennessee at Martin, there is a clear disconnect when it comes to wrapping up.
“Everybody is coming in and running the ball,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “You have to earn the right to get an interception and get a sack, and the only way to get a sack or an interception is to stop the run.”
Over the weekend, UT Martin’s Division II program came to town and ran for more than 200 yards. Numbers like that should be cause for concern for the Rebels before they head to California to take on the Golden Bears.
“We have to stop the run game; that’s the reality,” McGriff said. “Teams are going to come in with their ground game and see if we have corrected that area. If we can fix that area and force it into a throw game, now we have an opportunity to get a sack; now we have an opportunity to challenge them in the passing game. Then we can get interceptions.”
The University of California, Berkeley features a dynamic senior running back in Tre Watson, who posted strong numbers against Weber State and again in a 35-30 win over a quality North Carolina program.
“He came back into that game (against Weber State) after taking a vicious hit, but he is a very good running back,” McGriff said. “He is very explosive coming out of the backfield, and, again, we are facing another running back that is really good at catching the ball coming out of the backfield.”
Watson isn’t the only problem the Rebels will face against the Golden Bears’ offense. Quarterback Ross Bowers is completing 66.67 percent of his throws, and he isn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run, either.
“He’s not a guy that’s going to extend the play forward with his feet, but given the opportunity to run, he will certainly do so,” McGriff said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us because this offense is going to spread the ball and try to get as much grass as they can, giving their playmakers the football.”
In facing the West Coast offense the Golden Bears will bring, tackling in open field and stopping the run game is still a priority for the Rebels on defense.
“I can promise you the first period of practice is going to be about the run game because we have to correct that,” McGriff said. “They are going to try and run it up inside and move the chains, so that’s what we are going to have to stop against this offense to be successful.”
Outside of an inability to tackle, questions are being raised regarding depth and personnel in Oxford. Thus far in 2017, the starters have taken the majority of the workload and are uncovering a clear drop-off between first- and second-string players.
“The defensive staff wanted to see what the reserves could do (against UT Martin), but at the same time, we were trying to keep the starters warm as long as possible and play a complete game,” McGriff said. “We rotated some of the reserves in, but we didn’t do a wholesale swap with the second unit like we did in the first game.”
While coaches are making sure they have the right players out on the field, they are also looking to eliminate fundamental mistakes. A road trip to California is no easy feat for any team, and with a hectic week in the locker room, McGriff stressed the importance of getting the small things right.
“Although they were really simple, we made some mental errors,” he said. “So when we sit down this week, we are going to make sure that we eliminate them and increase our performance.”