The Ole Miss run defense has struggled through eight games this season, but it will have to stand stout against a South Carolina rushing attack that found its footing last week against Tennessee.
“I think they had success running the football,” Head Coach Matt Luke said. “I think that’s kind of what they hung their hat on … a little more 12-personnel, not as many (Run-Pass Options).”
South Carolina’s offense got in a groove on the ground last week, and the Rebels should expect to see a similar effort from the Gamecocks on Saturday. The Gamecocks averaged 5.6 yards per rush, and junior Rico Dowdle came off the bench to notch 140 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. This was against a Tennessee defense that ranked 75th in the country in rushing defense. Ole Miss currently ranks 113th in rushing defense, and the defense has struggled to maintain consistency from play to play, which has led to many chunk plays and large gains.
“That’s probably one of our weakest things right now, giving up explosive plays,” junior defensive tackle Benito Jones said.
The Rebels’ defensive front is led by Jones, who has notched five tackles for loss and a sack from the defensive tackle position this year. While the defensive front has visibly struggled at times against the run, there is reason for optimism among Ole Miss fans.
The Rebels have faced two of the top rushing attacks nationally (LSU and Alabama) and they have allowed 4.97 yards per rush despite their inflated total. In order to succeed this weekend, Jones emphasized the need for the defensive line to help make the Rebels’ young linebackers’ job easier.
“Everything starts up front,” Jones said. “(We) don’t try to put too much pressure on the (linebackers).”
Luke emphasized the importance of consistency in defending the run when discussing the issues some of the inexperienced linebackers have faced as the season has gone on.
“It’s different when you’re expected to do it every time,” Luke said. “You get in there as a starter, you’re expected to flash every time.”
The Rebels have healed coming off of their bye week, which should help with containing the South Carolina rushing offense. Victor Evans is in line for an increased role on Saturday after dealing with a knee injury, and the senior defensive end brings needed experience to the Ole Miss frontline.
“He’ll be a little bit better (and) give us a little bit more,” Luke said.
Senior defensive end Markel Winters will not play on Saturday, but Luke is optimistic about his chances later in the season. Winters played in eleven games last year, and he had four sacks in the 2018 season before going down.
“He won’t play this week,” Luke said. “Maybe questionable for the next week, but I think he’ll be back before the end of the year.”
If the Ole Miss defense can lock down South Carolina’s offense up front, its success could be key to keeping Will Muschamp’s defense on the field and wearing them down in a game that looks like it might be close until the very end.