OXFORD – It’s homecoming at Ole Miss, and two teams with five wins between them will play at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday night.
The Rebels take on Louisiana-Lafayette in matchup that falls outside the parameters of “big game.” I’m pretty sure the ESPN Game Day crew is not coming.
Now, it’s big for the Rebels for a number of other reasons, chief among them being that Ole Miss must win three of its last four to avoid a losing season and become eligible for a bowl game.
While this game doesn’t fit “big” in the pre-game hype element, recent games have had plenty enough big – as in big plays allowed – that has served to cut off the Rebels at the pass.
Ole Miss has allowed at least one play of 40-plus yards for four straight games, one play of at least 80 yards – whether from its defense or special teams – in three straight games.
Arkansas had a 97-yard punt return and a 71-yard touchdown run. Auburn had a 95-yard kick return and a 68-yard run.
Tackling has been at the root of many problems on a defense that is 10th in the SEC in yards allowed, last in points allowed. The poor tackling puzzles coaches and players.
“We’re good tacklers. I don’t have an answer for it,” says LaMark Armour, a defensive end, who thoughtfully considered the question before striking out with his response.
His coach is right there with him.
“The disappointing thing is I know we’re different tacklers,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt says.
One of the biggest differences between college ball and the NFL is the number of missed tackles. Big plays often begin at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield when an athlete escapes abduction because someone didn’t wrap up, didn’t take the best angle or just didn’t physically finish the job.
Last season the Rebels not only tackled, they tackled behind the line. They led the SEC in tackles for loss in 2009, but that pace has dropped to seventh.
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix calls tackling an “act of courage.” For Ole Miss or any defense, it’s not so important that one player take down a ball-carrier by himself, but that single player needs to disrupt the play long enough for help to arrive, and help needs to get off blocks and get to the action faster.
If there’s a matchup that stands out against the Ragin’ Cajuns, it’s big plays, the Rebels’ propensity to allow them, vs. the Cajuns knack for creating them.
We’re not talking about Auburn here, but there are athletes to go around in the South, and La-Lafayette will have its share, most notably tight end Ladarius Green. He’s 6-6, 230, and he’s not on the field for blocking.
Green won’t be easy to tackle. He has nine plays of 20-plus yards. Collectively the Cajuns have 49 such plays, six of them between 40-49 yards, another four between 60-69 and two more of 80-plus.
Most of Lafayette’s big plays have come in the passing game and on special teams.
In spite of its big plays, La.-Lafayette has managed to win just twice in eight games. Last week the Cajuns’ defense picked off four passes, but ULL lost 38-31 at Ohio.
The Jacksonville State game was a painful Ole Miss teaching tool on respect for opponent and what can happen on any given Saturday.
The biggest thing Ole Miss needs right now is a win and the increased feeling of confidence that comes with. Avoiding big plays for a defense that’s been mangled by them is the best way to get there, and that could create some momentum for the final three games.
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