Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels (3-3, 1-3 SEC) collide with arch-nemesis No. 6 LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC) this weekend in their second-consecutive game against a Top 10-ranked SEC West club.
To have a chance at what would be an epic upset, nearly everything must go right for the Rebels.
While they almost pulled off the shocker against Johnny Football and the Aggies, Ole Miss eventually fell 41-38 after the Heisman Trophy winner helped set up a late, game-winning field goal.
As if facing back-to-back Top 10-ranked clubs wasn’t challenging enough, the Rebels enter the LSU game reeling from a health standpoint, particularly on defense.
The walking-wounded include defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Carlos Thompson and Issac Gross, linebackers Serderius Bryant and Temario Strong and defensive back Mike Hilton.
Without question, the Bayou Bengals will look to expose a wounded Ole Miss defense.
Not only do the Rebels have to worry about running back Jeremy Hill, but also quarterback ZachMettenberger and one of the nation’s most lethal receiving duos in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
As for the LSU defense, it’s a unit coming off its best outing of the year against Florida last week, (having allowed only 240 yards of total offense and a pair of field goals). Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace and Co. got back on track against a suspect Texas A&M defense, but the Rebels offense must step up its game even more to hang around against the Tigers on Saturday.
Let’s look at what must happen for the Rebels to have a chance in the fourth quarter.
Slow Down A Potent LSU Offense
RB Jeremy Hill, averaging 119.2 YPG, is the second-leading rusher in the SEC. Not only is he picking up 7.2 YPC in 2013, but he’s gone over the 100-yard mark in each of his last five outings.
Hill hasn’t fumbled the ball in his last 240 carries. It’s a stat worth remembering this weekend.
An Ole Miss run defense allowing 186.7 YPG this season will square off against an LSU rushing attack averaging 194.1 YPG. What’s even more troubling for the Rebels is the fact that they’ve given up an average of 259 yards rushing to opponents in their three losses.
Alternatively, the Ole Miss defense has only yielded an average of 114.3 YPG rushing in its three wins.
The Rebels enter this weekend’s contest holding opponents to 212.3 YPG through the air.
On Saturday, the unit will be tested by LSU QB Zach Mettenberger, averaging 270 YPG passing.
Mettenberger has thrown for more touchdowns (15) through the first seven games of a season than any quarterback in LSU history. As for picks, he’s only tossed two so far this season. Not bad.
A major reason for his success this fall has been the play of receiving duo Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. This fall, the two receivers have amassed a combined 83 receptions for 1,407 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Beckham Jr. is averaging 104.7 YPG, while Landry is averaging 96.3 YPG. Moreover, Beckham Jr. is gaining 21.2 yards every time he touches the ball. It’s an astounding figure, but a major reason he’s averaging 209.1 all-purpose yards each outing.
The Tigers are incredibly talented top-to-bottom on offense and they’re going to score points. That being said, the Ole Miss D must bend but not break to stay in the game.
LSU has won 35 of its last 36 games when scoring 30-plus points.
Limit Big Play Balls
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s offense has recorded 50 plays of 20-plus yards in 2013, 15 of which have gone for touchdowns.
While the Tigers have notched 11 such plays on the ground, 39 have come through the air. Of the 39 passing plays of 20-plus yards, 31 have come by way WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Early in the game has been when most big plays have occurred, with 18 coming in the opening quarter.
There’s no other way to put it, Ole Miss simply must limit big plays by the Tigers.
Look no further than last year’s battle in Baton Rouge, as Beckham Jr. took a punt return to the house for what would end up being the difference in the ball game.
Find Success on the Ground
With RB Jeff Scott out of the mix on Saturday, sophomore backs I’Tavius Mathers andJaylen Walton will need to play like seasoned veterans. Not only does that mean both Rebels will need to be productive out of the backfield, but they’ll also need protect the football.
Mathers is averaging 27.4 YPG rushing, while Walton is averaging 21.5 YPG rushing.
Then, there are QBs Bo Wallace (24 YPG) and Barry Brunetti (34.7 YPG), both of whom are capable of picking up real estate with their feet. Last season, Wallace rushed 11 times for 54 yards and two scores. He’ll need to show the same type of prowess on the ground this time around.
At issue against LSU will be the health of Brunetti.
A player that’s struggled to find a true role in the Ole Miss offense over his career, he’s finally been able to do just that in 2013. His ability to play and make plays against the Tigers will be absolutely crucial to an upset bid at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
If he’s able to go, look for a heavy dose of Brunetti throughout the night.
The Rebels rushed for 147 yards at Tiger Stadium last season, and they must achieve at least the same level of productivity against the Tigers this weekend. Brunetti’s availability or absence will be a major factor.
Open Up the Offensive Playbook
Hugh Freeze has tried a gadget play here and there, but been pretty modest on offense this year.
Obviously, a large part of that has been due to inefficient offense line play as of late. But to stay in the mix against LSU throughout the night, the Rebels will have to dig into the playbook a few times.
One player to watch out for is true freshman speedster Kailo Moore.
While he’s only seen six carries this year and primarily been used on kick returns, he’s the kind of athlete capable of taking one to the house anytime he touches the ball.
As dynamic as the Ole Miss offense is when it’s clicking, just running the status quo this weekend won’t be enough. The Rebels will have to mix things up a bit.
Play Second-Quarter Football
While the Rebels have outscored their opponents 51-37 over the first quarter this season, they’ve actually been outscored 23-50 by opponents in the second quarter.
As good as it is to come out strong, it’s even more important to remain strong.
Les Miles‘ squad has played quality first-half football itself, having outscored opponents 90-29 in the first quarter and 72-58 over the second quarter.
Even if the Rebels are able to put some points on the board in the first quarter, they must forge ahead in the second quarter with a sense of urgency. If not, the Tigers will jump ahead and force the Rebels to play catch up in the second half–a feat that will be hard to achieve.
Seize Every Opportunity
Be it on offense, defense or special teams, Ole Miss must seize any opportunity that arises.
While LSU QB Zach Mettenberger has only tossed two picks all season, the Tigers have coughed the ball up a total of 10 times (losing six of them). If and when opportunity knocks Saturday night, the Ole Miss offense must make the Tigers pay. If not, it could be another close loss.
It won’t be enough to create a turnover and settle for a field goal.
And when the Rebels move into the red zone, they must score touchdowns instead of field goals.
Heading into the LSU game, the Ole Miss offense has only scored 15 touchdowns on 22 red zone trips. Leaving the red zone with touchdowns just over two-thirds of the time isn’t bad, but an offense like Ole Miss’ should put the ball across the goal line a little more.
To have a shot in the fourth quarter Saturday, the Rebels must leave with 7 more times than not.
Hang Around and See What Happens
If the Rebels can just “hang around” against LSU, for the most being able to exchange shots with the Tigers as they did last season, things could get rather interesting in the fourth quarter.
For that to happen and for the Rebels to have a chance at the upset, they’ll need another high-scoring affair similar to the 41-35 game in 2012.
However, if Les Miles and the Tigers are able to jump out on top early, it could be a long night for the home crowd in Oxford.
Nevertheless, it’s Ole Miss and LSU, squaring off for the 102nd time. While the Bayou Bengals hold a 58-39-4 all-time series advantage, they’re only 9-6-1 all-time in Oxford. On one of the colder nights of the season and in front of what should be an electric crowd inside the Vaught, the Rebels will leave nothing on the field against the rival Tigers.
But will it be enough?
–Seph Anderson, Sportswriter to The South, covers timely Ole Miss, SEC, & national news from the sports world. @SephAnderson