In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, it was the Ole Miss defense that served as the bright spot for the Rebels in the disappointing loss on Saturday.
The defense showed vast improvement from last season, when the squad ranked toward the bottom of the FBS defensive rankings.
Defensive coordinator Mike McIntyre’s new 3-4 defense allowed 13 points out of 15, all of which were scored in the first half.
An improvement from last year, however, it was still not good enough as the Rebels allowed 364 total yards, making way for 128 rushing yards and one touchdown from Memphis running back Patrick Taylor Jr.
“We played hard. It’s just really disappointing that we couldn’t get them out there in that last drive,” McIntyre said. “We had a couple of opportunities to make some plays and just couldn’t get it done like we’d like to, but I thought overall they played hard.”
Head coach Matt Luke was pleased with his defensive front in the season opener.
“I thought we knew what to do. Very rarely was anybody running free. They had their eyes in the right place. They were gap sound. There wasn’t any really just huge plays,” Luke said. “We protected our edges. I think Qaadir (Sheppard) and Sam (Williams) did a good job coming off the edge and Luke Knox kind of showed up.”
Lakia Henry also played well on 59 of the Rebels’ 84 defensive snaps.
The defensive backs flashed real promise on Saturday. Myles Hartsfield and Keidron Smith played the run and short passing game well on the perimeter, while Armani Linton and Jon Haynes executed well on the top of the defense.
“What really showed up to me was the DBs playing the deep balls, knocking balls away, not running with their backs to the ball,” Luke said.
The Rebel defense will face an SEC rushing attack from Arkansas feature back Rakeem Boyd, who has historically had field days against Ole Miss. The back had 114 yards and one touchdown in the Razorbacks’ win over Portland State last weekend.
“He’s a good back. He’s somebody who’s been there for a long time,” Luke said of Boyd. “I just remember vividly in the game last year, he has the ability to run through you. He can make you miss. He’s just a very, very good back.”
Ole Miss’s potential new and improved defense will need to clean things up quickly with their first conference game coming as an important one.
“We’ve definitely got some things that showed up that Arkansas can take advantage of when you watch it on film,” McIntyre said, “but we played extremely hard, gave good effort and communicated pretty well together.”