All eyes were on John Rhys Plumlee, and the stable of running backs in the 31-6 win over Vanderbilt to cap off homecoming week, but the bright spot of the victory was the Rebel defense.
The squad stepped over Riley Neal and the Vanderbilt offense on Saturday, allowing only 264 total yards and holding the Commodores to 2-17 on third down. While Vanderbilt’s attack is far from the most dynamic the Rebels will face this season, head coach Matt Luke is happy to see the defense improve on every level.
“Looking back at the last game, I was very pleased with the defensive performance,” Luke said. “The more you watch it, the more you like about it. I was really impressed with the defensive line, I thought they played their best game to date, holding their gaps and getting off the field on third down.”
Step one for the Rebels last week and all season has been stopping the run with big bodies on the interior. Ole Miss held standout tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn to 69 yards on 18 carries. Vanderbilt finished with 62 yards rushing on 27 total carries. Lakia Henry had a career night with 15 total tackles and a sack.
That defensive front led by Benito Jones beat the visitor’s offensive line in the running and passing game. The pass rush tallied three sacks and eight QB hurries, giving the secondary help on the backend.
“I have a saying… The best pass defense for a secondary player is the quarterback on his back,” defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. “So the pass rush definitely helped the secondary, but we did play better back there. We were recognizing routes and we were just in a better position a lot more often which is good to see.”
Deantre Prince and Jay Stanley contributed heavily in the game with John Haynes out with an injury.
“You hope all the guys you recruit can do that, but you just don’t know until they get here,” Luke said. “Those guys have stepped in and have done a good job. Offensively, you knew with the lack of experience coming back that those guys would have to play.”
The Ole Miss defense will turn around to prepare for a real test against a dynamic offense led by transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant. The Missouri offense has scored over 30 points in every game this season, even their 37-31 hiccup loss to Wyoming to open the season.
Bryant went down with a scary leg injury in the second quarter of the 42-10 win after a late hit from a Troy defender. He did not return to the game, but the school confirmed the quarterback suffered a sprained left knee and will participate in practice fully.
“He’s able to run the football. In the RPO game, he’s able to pull it down and throw it and also able to pull it and run it on dive skips and different things reading the end,” MacIntyre said. “He’s able to throw the ball well on the run. He’s created quite a few plays out of the pocket, staying alive having free blitzers he makes them miss and takes off running. He’s an excellent weapon.”
The Tiger attack will be the Landsharks’ first real test since the 59-31 loss to Alabama.
“Week-to-week getting better. That is my number one goal,” Luke said. “Obviously, the elephant in the room is getting back to a bowl game. Getting this program back to postseason is a huge goal. Right now, we are focused on week-to-week, and I think we are making progress and we can build on that to continue to get better.”