Special teams, the third phase of football, the unsung heroes that make all the difference in the game, did just that today for Ole Miss. It just wasn’t the way head coach Matt Luke and his staff had envisioned.
Many things can be pointed to as why the Rebels fell to South Carolina at home on Saturday. Giving up a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter or allowing a 69-yard run late in the fourth could be looked to as reasons for Ole Miss’ heartbreaking loss, but the most glaring difference in this game was the performance of the kickoff coverage unit.
I think it’s safe to say the special teams’ woes, specifically the kickoff coverage, against South Carolina potentially cost the Rebels the game. Kickoff returns can swing momentum like few things in college football can, and can turn games upside down in an instant.
South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel immediately made his presence felt by returning the opening kickoff 90 yards to the house. As was the case in the Arkansas game, Ole Miss fell behind by 14 in the first quarter but found a way to come back and make it a close affair in the end.
Samuel finished the game with five returns for 178 yards and a touchdown. He also returned a kick for 38-yards following a Scottie Phillips touchdown, killing the Rebels’ momentum and giving the Gamecocks great field position that resulted in a South Carolina touchdown.
His kickoff return in the fourth quarter was the turning point in the game. Up to that point, Ole Miss had scored on two straight possessions, taking a 44-34 lead with a quarter to play. After the 38-yard return, the Rebels lost something offensively, punting on two consecutive drives which allowed South Carolina to retake the lead.
Coach Luke said the team’s game plan was to keep the ball out of Samuel’s hands as much as possible.
“Kickoff coverage was not good. The plan was to try and keep it away from Samuel,” Luke said. “We had a plan to do that, and it didn’t work. We were skying it to the tight ends which worked some, but those (have) high hangtime, and we should be able to get down there and cover.”
Special teams were not the only group at fault in Saturday’s loss, however. Ole Miss again struggled in the red zone, going 8-9 on scoring drives that made it to the red zone. That may not sound like a bad percentage, but a Scottie Phillips fumble and settling for three field goals (with the longest being just 31 yards) hurt the Rebels in the long run on Saturday.
“We dialed up a lot of good stuff in the red zone and thought the plan was good,” Luke said. “Even on the ones we didn’t (get in the end zone), I thought the ball was going to the right place. I thought the plan was good and we executed well. In the fourth quarter we just didn’t finish.”
While the loss is a tough pill to swallow for the Rebels, not everything from this game was negative. Scottie Phillips showed up in a big way on the ground, rushing for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Phillips’ production throughout 2018 has been a pleasant surprise, a compliment to both he and the offensive line.
Jordan Ta’amu also played well. Although he didn’t have a touchdown through the air, he threw for 379 yards and added 89 more and a touchdown on the ground. Furthermore, 129 of Ta’amu’s yards passing went to Elijah Moore, who had a breakout performance in D.K. Metcalf’s absence. A.J. Brown also caught six balls for 115 yards on the day, a solid performance for him and the offense as a whole.
In a back-and-forth game that saw both sides scoring almost at will, the game could’ve gone either way. If the Gamecocks never got those two big returns that completely changed the game, Ole Miss could be sitting at 6-3 with three games to go. Instead, Ole Miss now drops to 5-4 with games against A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, two of which come on the road.