The Rebels knocked off the South Alabama Jaguars 47-27 on a warm Saturday night in Oxford. In a seemingly lopsided win, the scoreboard did not do the game justice. Entering the season with a new defensive coaching staff, the Rebels intended to get back to simplicity – making tackles, not allowing big plays and staying disciplined. While the defense was able to limit big plays, there were many lapses when it came to getting the South Alabama Jaguars to the ground.
The Rebels got off to a fast start defensively, forcing two consecutive three-and-outs. Demarquis Gates and the rest of the front seven were getting after Jaguar signal caller Cole Garvin. The Rebels kept Jaguar running backs Tra Minter and Xavier Johnson in check on the first two possessions. Following Gary Wunderlich’s first field goal at the end of the first quarter, Luke Logan pinned South Alabama at its own 2-yard line on the kickoff. Then the momentum shifted.
The South Alabama offense started clicking and notched a 95-yard drive that ended with a field goal. A pass break up by safety Zedrick Woods forced a Jaguar field goal attempt that brought an end to a nine minute and 39-second drive. Even though the Rebel defense forced a field goal, the drive brought up memories of a forgettable 2016 defense.
The defense was not able to get the Jaguars into third down situations. When it could, it was able to get off of the field. The Rebels were also unable to keep South Alabama under the century mark on the ground. As a team, South Alabama rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns. Success in the running game allowed South Alabama to open up the passing game.
Their long drive only created more momentum for the Jaguars as they forced a fumble on the following drive. With a short field, they scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 10 points apiece. In the only big pass allowed by Wesley McGriff’s defense, Jamarius Way went up and over the defender to make the play.
“We definitely need to improve in our tackling. We gave up too much leaky yardage,” McGriff said.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Rebels’ secondary was an inability to force incompletions. Rarely were the Jaguar receivers forced to make a catch with resistance. Cole Garvin finished the game 19-31 for 204 yards, picking up one touchdown and throwing zero interceptions. C.J. Moore led the team with eight tackles. Josiah Coatney led the way with two tackles for loss. Zedrick Woods was able to break up two passes.
With McGriff having to break in many young guys at key positions, growing pains were to be expected. The team proved incapable of pressuring the quarterback over 60 minutes. It was only able to record one sack, which was a blitz from A.J. Moore. McGriff’s group struggled with missed tackles. Head coach Matt Luke saw the need for improvement on defense.
“I liked seeing the defense bow their neck in the red zone when it mattered. There was a lot we need to clean up in the second half on defense,” Luke said when asked about his thoughts on the defense. When asked about the rotation of players, Luke said the plan all along was to get guys in and out.
“That was the plan going in,” Luke said regarding the use of depth. McGriff added to this by saying it is important to see what kind of players the team has.
Coach McGriff was pleased with the overall effort and mental play of his guys. In particular, he seemed pleased with his team’s ability to confront the Jaguars’ ball carriers.
“These guys know it good enough to call the plays themselves,” McGriff said, referencing his scheme.
McGriff and Luke both made references to their intentions of playing second- and third-string players. According to McGriff, getting fringe players minutes early in the season can pay dividends later in the season.
“It is always good in the first game if you can play a lot of players [because] you find out who can play for you,” McGriff said, excited to get his guys out there in an “uncontrolled environment” to learn who was ready to play.
In the eventually convincing win, the Rebels proved many strengths. At the same time, the defensive weaknesses once again reared their ugly heads. Going into practice and next week’s game against UT-Martin, the defense will need to focus on finishing tackles and getting pressure on the quarterback. The Rebel faithful are hoping to see a return to the Landshark defensive mentality this season.