Ole Miss starting quarterback Matt Corral has completed 63% of his passes for 578 yards and a 144.9 passing efficiency rating after three games. The redshirt freshman has appeared poised most of the time, but overwhelmed other times.
He will need his best performance of the season thus far to get past a salty California Golden Bear defense ranked No. 15 in the SP+ ratings after week three. That defense featuring a ballhawking, active secondary specializing in confusing opposing offenses has dragged the team to a 3-0 record with an impressive win over Washington and a No. 23 ranking.
Though it has not been pretty, Corral has lead the offense efficiently most of his time on the field, especially in the last two weeks.
“I started feeling comfortable really after Arkansas and being comfortable in that game environment when we go out on the field and it’s like, ‘ok we’re here’,” Corral said. “It’s just like practice.
“They say it feels different when you’re out there on the field… but when you get out there and you finally figure out what you’re doing and you have confidence in what you’re doing, all of that goes away.”
Corral will find himself in the belly of the beast come Saturday as he stares down the Cal defense that has held opponents to 16.3 points a game. The squad’s claim to fame is that secondary featuring Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins at safety and Traveon Beck, Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum on the perimeters.
The Golden Bears will be keying on Rebel slot receiver Elijah Moore, who has quickly emerged as an All-SEC candidate and Corral’s favorite target. Moore has found the endzone three times this season with an average of 15.4 yards per reception.
The sophomore’s production has come out of necessity as the Rebels have yet to find another reliable pass catcher outside of Dontario Drummond after Braylon Sanders went down with a hamstring injury in the season opener. Ole Miss has had to make due with a handful of freshmen.
“It’s hard sending little babies out there,” receiver coach Jacob Peeler said. “I know we want them to be at their best now including myself, but I think they’ll continue to progress and continue to take steps in the right direction.”
Sanders has been practicing with the team all week, and Peeler is confident Sanders will be able to go on Saturday.
“It’s just another receiver that I trust out there,” Corral said. “Me and Braylon have that on-and-off-the-field chemistry. We hang out a lot and that’s my brother right there so I trust him and it’s just him getting back in shape because I know he hasn’t been out there.”
Corral’s confidence is also dependent on the production of the running game with that young offensive line and stable of capable backs. Scottie Phillips, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner have all filled their roles well so far this season, not only toting the ball but also helping in pass protection. The interior offense will face a monster front seven led by inside linebacker Evan Weaver.
“They’ve never had a problem doing that type of stuff, it’s just them getting better at it,” Corral said. “When that time comes when they need to get that key block and they keep getting it over and over, I feel like that gives them more confidence.”
Kickoff for the game in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday is set at 11 a.m. with the forecast around 80 degrees with 61% humidity at kickoff. The Golden Bears travel to Oxford by plane on Thursday, allowing about 48 hours to adjust to the time and climate change. Corral, who remembers playing several Cal players during his time in high school ball out west, downplayed the perceived advantage for the Rebels during the game.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s different,” Corral said. “It’s different from a cool 75 (degrees) everyday with a little overcast to being out here at 6 a.m. and it’s 80 degrees in the morning. It’s something that could be an advantage, but at the end of the day you’ve got to put the football down and play.”