Ole Miss fell to the South Carolina Gamecocks 44-48 on Saturday for the Rebels’ fourth conference loss this year, bringing the team to 5-4 on the season.
The 11 a.m. kickoff quickly gave way to an offensive showdown. These two struggling SEC teams put up 27 points apiece and a combined 749 yards of offense through the nearly two-hour-long first half. Toward the end of the second half, however, the offensive fireworks subdued and the tired-looking Rebels let the Gamecocks pull away in a fourth quarter that saw the Rebels put up a mere 18 yards of offense.
“Tough loss today,” head coach Matt Luke said. “It makes it tough when you know the kids left it all on the field and they battled their guts out, and we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Trouble stopping the run and making open field tackles became apparent early as the Gamecocks opted to receive and began the day with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Luke Logan tried to keep the kickoff away from Gamecock go-to returner Deebo Samuel, but the standout receiver got his hands on the ball anyway, despite a muffed recovery.
“There’s obviously a lot of things that we could clean up,” Luke said. “Too many easy plays, deep balls and the kick off return, that ended up being the difference in the game.”
Though powerful, the Rebel offense was relatively quiet in the red zone in the first quarter. Gamecock pass interference kept A.J. Brown from what would have been his only touchdown reception of the day on the Rebels’ second drive. Third down came once again in the red zone, and Scottie Phillips fumbled a backwards pass, which the Gamecocks recovered on the 24-yard line.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo said he focussed on improving the team’s red zone performance after being shut out of the end zone through the first 15 minutes.
“I thought the guys, after the first quarter, did a really good job down there,” Longo said. “We wanted to be more physical in the red zone we wanted to run the ball better down there I thought we did that.”
A highlight of the Rebels’ exhausting loss came in the form of freshman wide receiver Elijah Moore’s record-setting outing. Moore caught 11 passes for 129 yards, good for the most receptions in a game ever by an Ole Miss freshman. Nine of those catches came in the first half. Back-to-back catches by Moore during a Rebel drive in the second quarter bolstered a brief Ole Miss attack, but the offense sputtered and was forced to settle for a second field goal.
“With D.K. (Metcalf) down, I knew I had to step up,” Moore said. “I cannot let my boys down. They work hard every day in practice so I have to work hard for them. We will just work a little harder to get the win next time. I am going to just keep doing what I’m doing. I’m blessed.”
Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu also impressed in his first-half performance. Ta’amu threw for 270 yards on a 20-29 clip and excelled on his feet. At the half, his 76 rushing yards closely trailed running back Scottie Phillips for the best showing on the ground. Ta’amu’s strong day continued late into the 3rd quarter until the senior quarterback went down hard on a roughing the passer call.
“I thought he looked a little sluggish when he went in, that’s why we took him out the next drive,” Longo said.
Ta’amu’s injury forced true-freshman quarterback Matt Corral into the game, who has played sparingly this season. Although Corral had to come in, Longo praised his team for never wavering during Ta’amu’s injury scare.
“This is one of the most resilient groups I’ve ever been around,” Longo said. “It’s inspiring to me because I don’t think attitude changed the entire game, we fought, and they’re just resilient this group.”
Scottie Phillips’ effort on Saturday is a prime example of the resiliency Longo praised after the game. The junior running back notched a career-high three touchdowns after his fumble in the first quarter.
With 5:30 to go in the third quarter, Luke turned to Phillips to convert a Rebel fourth and one, and Phillips delivered. His five-yard conversion paved the way for a 19-yard completion over the top to Dawson Knox to set the Rebels up in the red zone. A toss to the outside gave Phillips an uncontested sweep into the end zone for his third score and the game’s third lead change.
An early fourth quarter score by Isaiah Woullard extended the Rebel lead to 10 with 14 minutes left, but the sluggish defense couldn’t hold the South Carolina attack back. Ole Miss let up two more touchdowns before a final four and out by the Rebels. Mac Brown punted three times for the Rebels in the fourth as the game came to a close.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but you’ve just got to look at the little things,” Phillips said after Saturday’s loss. “Correct some mistakes, and just move on to the next one.”