Commentary by HottyToddy.com contributor Seph Anderson
Well, here we are, Rebel fans.
Sitting at 7-0 overall (4-0 SEC) and fighting for not only a spot in the SEC Championship Game, but also a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff, up next are the rival LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge, LA.
This year’s contest will mark the first time since 2003 that both teams have been ranked heading into the game. That’s right, I said 2003. And yes, it was “that game” you’re thinking about.
Eli’s final home game. Fighting to represent the SEC West in Atlanta. The biggest crowd to ever descend upon the Grove and (at the time) the toughest ticket there had ever been at the Vaught.
Fast forward nearly 11 years and an eerily similar situation has unfolded.
As for what’s at stake this time? Much, much more.
In the SEC West driver’s seat, along with Mississippi State, the Rebels control their own destiny. Sure, they’re battling to finally play an early December game in the Georgia Dome, but there’s an even grander dream that the red and blue are working to turn into reality. A national championship bid.
Knowing that the Rebels will play host to No. 5 Auburn (Nov. 1) and No. 1 Mississippi State (Nov. 29),
I firmly believe the upcoming Saturday night fight in Death Valley is Ole Miss toughest game remaining.
While No. 24 LSU is 6-2 overall (2-2 SEC), remember that its two losses came against State and Auburn.
And unlike some Tiger teams of recent years that have started hot, only to fade as the season has gone on, the 2014 Tigers are a hungry, young, talented club gaining confidence with each passing quarter.
Look no further than last week’s contest with a then one-loss Kentucky squad in which game in which LSU won 41-3. Now, the Tigers look to seek revenge on the Rebels after last year’s upset in Oxford.
Under the lights Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, when Les Miles is 45-4 at LSU, the Rebels will look to remain one of only four unbeatens (Florida State, Marshall, Mississippi State) and continue their quest towards an SEC and National Championship.
In a series in which LSU leads 58-40-4 all-time, surprisingly Miles is only 6-4 against Ole Miss.
If the Rebels are to make it two straight over the Bayou Bengals, they’ll need to do five things.
1. Stymie the Tiger run game, Force QB Anthony Jennings to Beat You
Once again this fall, the Tigers have a bevy of running backs that are contributing on offense and taking pressure off the passing game. Leading the way is true freshman RB/KR Leonard Fournette, averaging 68 yards per game on the ground (7 TDs). Behind the rookie, seniors Kenny Hilliard (44.1 YPG, 6 TDs) and Terrence Magee (43 YPG, 3 TDs) have helped provide a one-two punch out of the backfield.
Averaging 220.9 YPG on the ground (No. 26 nation), the Tiger rushing attack will be meet an Ole Miss run defense allowing only 97.1 YPG (No. 6 nation). If the Rebels an continue their stellar play against the run, QB Anthony Jennings will be forced to make plays with his arm against a defense that’s picked off 15 balls this year and forced an astounding 20 turnovers (not to mention having now forced a TO in 30 consecutive games).
A nugget worth noting: LSU is 5-16 under Miles when rushing for under 100 yards in a game.
2. Expose the Youth & Inexperience of LSU’s Offense
Seventeen of the Tigers 35 touchdowns in 2014 have come from true freshmen. Back-up QB Brandon Harris has accounted for nine scores, Fournette for seven, WR Malachi Dupree for four and RB Darrel Williams for three scores. Even with Harris now serving a back-up role, that’s a lot of reliance upon kids that were playing high school football this time last year.
While the LSU defense has created 16 turnovers this season, the LSU offense has put the ball on the ground 14 times in its first eight games. Not exactly protecting the ball very well.
As for starting sophomore QB Anthony Jennings, he may be 7-1 as a starter at LSU, but he also hasn’t lined up across from a defense as menacing as he will this weekend. If the Rebels can keep the Tigers’ run game in check, the sophomore QB will be forced to make plays through the air to weapons like true freshman phenom WR Malachi Dupree (36.7 YPG, 4 TDs) and explosive sophomore WR Travin Dural (83.1 YPG, 7 TDs).
Through seven games this season, the first-string Rebel defense has only given up three touchdowns, while the defense as a whole currently ranks No. 3 nationally in pass defense efficiency. If forced to make plays through the air against a pass defense that’s been as efficient as any in the country, the edge goes to the Rebels.
3. Establish the Run Early, Allow Bo to be Bo
If there’s been one area of question this season for the Rebels, it’s been the run game.
The Rebels are rushing for an average of 151.3 YPG, while the Tigers are giving up an average of 162.5 yard per game on the ground. If the Rebels are to leave the bayou 8-0, it’ll be imperative that they establish the run early Saturday night.
Collectively, RBs Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers are averaging 76.2 YPG on the ground. While ground support has come from Wallace along with several other players this fall, there are three players in particular that can make a big impact against the LSU run defense: RB Jordan Wilkins and QBs Devante Kincade and Jeremy Liggins.
All three are big, bruising runners that need to pick up nice chunks of yardage when their numbers are called. If these three can be productive against LSU, Walton and Mathers should be all the more efficient when they get their hands on the ball. I’ve been waiting on the Tim Tebo-esque fake run, then short pass from Liggins all year, and Saturday night might just be when it happens.
And as good as the Tiger run defense has been, it’s worth noting that it did give up 268 rushing yards to Wisconsin, 302 yards to Mississippi State and 298 yards to Auburn. Moreover, those three teams combined for eight touchdowns on the ground against LSU.
The Rebels are 18-2 when rushing for more than 150 yards in a game under Freeze.
By establishing an effective rushing rotation in Death Valley, the pressure on Bo to go out there and create plays against a stingy pass defense will be greatly diminished (156.2 YPG).
4. Contain explosive WR Travin Dural
A stout, efficient Rebel pass defense must contain sophomore sensation WR Travin Dural.
Entering the game, Dural is averaging 25.6 yards per catch which leads the nation. Moreover, he has caught seven touchdowns and is averaging 83.1 YPG receiving.
Even more impressive, 28 of his 33 career catches were first downs or touchdowns. It’ll be imperative that S Cody Prewitt and the Rebel secondary know where Dural is at all times to negate the big play.
5. Dominate on Defense & Put Up Points in the First Quarter
While the Rebel defense has held its opponents to a combined three first quarter points in 2014, the Rebels have only managed to score 55 of their own first quarter points this year.
The more the offense can get going and find a rhythm from the opening whistle, the more advantageous the position the Rebels will find themselves in when the fourth quarter rolls around. Too often this year, the offense has sputtered in the first quarter of games, forcing the defense to bail them out at times.
In LSU’s four SEC contests this season (Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky), opponents have scored at least 14 first-quarter points all but once. That being said, it’ll be imperative that the Rebels find similar first quarter production against the Tigers (and carry it over to the half).
LSU is 70-6 when leading after the first quarter under Miles, as opposed to 14-15 when trailing.
The Final Word
In a rivalry series, rich in both Rebel glory and agony, this one’s as important as any to Ole Miss.
A win and I truly believe the Rebels enter the Egg Bowl 11-0, in full control of their own destiny.
A loss and next week’s date with Auburn really becomes a “must win” for SEC and national title hopes.
Would a win over LSU in 2014, understanding all that’s at stake, lessen the enduring heartache of the 1959 Halloween Night loss or the 2003 game that “should have been” in Oxford?
While Billy Cannon’s punt return may haunt Rebel fans for eternity, leaving Baton Rouge 8-0 with a win over a very talented, young LSU Tiger team would come close to avenging the home loss in ’03.
Expect the Mad Hatter (Miles) to pull out all the stops, gadgets and gimmicks he has in the bag. Not only
will he be out to avenge last year’s loss to the Rebels, but he and everyone else wearing purple and gold inside Tiger Stadium will be looking to end (or at least diminish) the Rebels’ dream season.
That being said, I expect another rock solid outing by a Rebel defense that has yet to allow an opponent to score over 20 points in a game this year. Keep an eye on LSU PK Colby Delahoussaye, as he’s 20-for-21 on field goal attempts over his career and has made his last 11 attempts. Does he get the TV jinx?
The biggest thing I’ll be watching for Saturday night is how quickly the Ole Miss offense starts clicking, specifically the ground game. If a ground game can be established early, the Tiger defense will have to respect the run which in turn will create some openings in the secondary for Wallace and his plethora of receiving weapons. If not, it could be a long night for the Rebel offense.
Speaking of Wallace, he’s been phenomenal in the second half this season, having thrown for 750 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. And he’ll need to continue the trend, as LSU has only allowed opponents to score a combined 20 points in the fourth quarter this fall.
What do they say on the bayou, “laissez les bon temps rouler?”
Rebel Nation, look for the good times to keep on rolling, as the Rebels leave with the W.
Ole Miss 28 – LSU 20
Seph Anderson, Ole Miss alum, staff member and fervent Rebel, covers timely Ole Miss & SEC news.
He resides with his wife and their two young girls in Oxford, MS and serves at the Academic Advisor for the Early Entry Pharmacy Program.