OXFORD – There was an SEC football game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The venue is one of the tip-offs that it wasn’t flag football.
Offense is a struggle at Ole Miss these days – and while Houston Nutt teams have traditionally gotten better as the season goes on, this one could get better without wins to show for it in the fall. The Rebels are 1-2 against the weakest part of their schedule.
Vanderbilt snapped a 10-game SEC losing streak by limiting the big plays from Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and when the Commodores did that, they had effectively silenced the meaningful threats from the offense.
It’s not that there isn’t talent at Ole Miss, there is, but in football most talent is rendered meaningless without effective play on the offensive line where indiscretion and injury have left the Rebels in a world of hurt.
This team needed a rehabilitated Rishaw Johnson to walk the straight and narrow, but that didn’t happen. Next up at right guard behind Johnson was sophomore Josh Tatum, who sustained a sprained ankle at Tulane and didn’t play Saturday.
Offensive line coach Mike Markuson used two different players at the position Saturday and felt like he got a little better line surge later in the game with Logan Clair, but the fact remains, down by seven at midfield in the fourth quarter, the Rebels had two cracks to get 1 yard – even less on the second attempt – and didn’t get it done.
Right guard is under the microscope and there’s virtually no experience on the interior with left guard Alex Washington and center A.J. Hawkins – both first-year starters.
So with the line what it is, you do what Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt did, and that’s play flag football. You let your mobile quarterback take a shotgun snap and make reads.
There were Ole Miss fans and college football observers who considered Masoli’s legal troubles and were opposed to his transfer to Oxford, and this is not a visit to that argument, but consider this: What might this offense look like if this offensive line, in its current state, had to protect a less mobile pure-pocket passer on every snap?
Protection would be further hampered by the lack of a traditional run game.
You can look at the Ole Miss roster, see the signees in place and see the makings of a good offensive line down the road.
But the road is looking pretty long right now.
Nutt did not use two quarterbacks for the first time this season, putting the game in Masoli’s hands.
The guy has a Favre-like approach – reckless – that can lead to problems like the interception by Vanderbilt’s Eddie Foster that was returned for a 21-yard touchdown, the Commodores’ second score.
But the rewards make the risks worthwhile. Masoli’s 28-yard touchdown scramble, the Rebels might have finished with only seven points. He put Ole Miss in position to win by throwing three passes that – at the D-I level – should have been caught for touchdowns.
Masoli rushed for 104 yards, passed for 190. Ole Miss had 385 yards, almost 300 of them from the transfer QB.
“The drops were crucial. We have to step up and make those plays,” said Masoli, who went on to judge his own performance “sub-par.”
Maybe Masoli will find another gear for his game next week against Fresno State.
Because as the Rebels try to find their way along the front line, they’ll need him to stay on the plus side in the risk-reward category.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal