A few weeks ago, viewing the Auburn game as “winnable” for Ole Miss would seem outlandish. The Tigers were a top-10 team that controlled the line of scrimmage on defense. Jarrett Stidham was regarded as one of the top quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft. Now, after back-to-back losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee, head coach Gus Malzahn is under pressure to buck the losing streak in Oxford on Saturday.
Saturday’s matchup will be the first game in which Phil Longo will have to call plays without D.K. Metcalf on the field. Matt Luke reported that the neck injury that held Metcalf out for most of the Arkansas game was worse than expected. The injury will cost the redshirt sophomore the rest of the season, and the injury could spell an end to his Ole Miss career. Before the injury, Metcalf, like fellow N.W.O. member A.J. Brown, was considered a top receiving prospect for the NFL Draft. If he can recover in the expected three-to-five-month recovery window, he will be able to participate in the pre-draft process.
Without Metcalf, the Rebels will rely on Brown to dominate secondaries more than ever. Braylon Sanders’ role as an outside receiver will increase. Freshman Elijah Moore, who — much like Brown — has proven himself to be a playmaker in the middle of the field in limited playing time this year, will increase his snap count in Metcalf’s absence.
Late in the game against Arkansas, with the Rebels needing to put points on the board to pull out a win, Phil Longo called up a few of the best drives so far in his tenure at Ole Miss. The deep pass has been a staple in Longo’s Ole Miss offense. This has led to extremes of feast or famine: feast against lesser opponents and famine against SEC teams.
This style of offense helps Ole Miss rack up scoring drives that are less than two minutes long. However, against the Razorbacks, Longo called plays that allowed DaMarkus Lodge, Brown, Sanders and the tight ends a chance to run after the catch. He did not force Jordan Ta’amu to sit in the pocket and take shots downfield. Instead, the ball was thrown quickly to the elite playmakers at his disposal.
Two bright spots of the offense coming out of the Arkansas game were the emergences of tight ends Dawson Knox and Octavious Cooley. Knox caught two passes for 65 yards, including a 48-yard catch-and-run to set the Rebels up deep in Arkansas territory on the game-winning drive. Cooley added two catches for 85 yards. His big play came on a scramble drill where Ta’amu found him after avoiding a sack. Cooley caught the pass on third-and-long, made a few players miss tackles and scored a 66-yard touchdown.
This trend of mixing in tight ends to lessen the burden on the receivers should continue during the closing stretch of SEC play. Forcing defenses to focus on Cooley and Knox over the middle will take attention away from Brown. If defenses choose to leave the tight ends open, they both have proven to turn short completions into big gains.
A forgotten aspect of an offense that heavily relies on the run-pass option, or RPO, is the quarterback run. Ta’amu has battled through injuries to both shoulders, so Longo has not dialed up designed runs for his quarterback very frequently this year. Against Arkansas, that changed. Ta’amu rushed 17 times for 141 yards and a touchdown. The runs were a mix of designed quarterback keepers and improvised scrambles. Ta’amu’s athleticism proved to be a nightmare for the Razorbacks alongside his successful passing game and Scottie Phillips’ success on the ground.
Most defenses in the SEC, and college football for that matter, do not have the personnel on the field to account for a dynamic running back, a deep and versatile receiving corps, two tight ends who can run and a quarterback who can beat them with both his arm and legs.
The Arkansas game offers a blueprint for the Ole Miss offense to stay on track in conference play. Auburn does not have the defensive talent of LSU or Alabama, but they are much deeper than the test that Arkansas offered. If Longo can call on a similar game plan against Auburn, it may provide a second-straight SEC victory.