If only Jeremiah Masoli were born a defensive tackle.
The controversial quarterback made his debut Saturday for Ole Miss and though he wore some rust—overthrowing a post route that was picked off—no one can argue that Masoli did not look like the player Rebel fans were hoping to see.
His mobility and poise were both on display throughout the game, but especially in the two overtime possessions where Masoli—and not starting QB Nathan Stanley—was tabbed to get the Rebels out of the jam they created.
In the end, Masoli’s two touchdown drives in OT were not enough as the Rebels dropped a laughing-stock caliber game to Jacksonville State, 49-48.
Here is what we learned:
The Defensive Line Is Not As Good As Advertised
Everyone—literally, everyone—pegged the Ole Miss front seven as one of the best in the country this year. Why not? The group is led by preseason All-American DT Jerrell Powe, rotates four seniors in the middle, and added five-star JUCO prospect Wayne Dorsey to rush of the end.
Against a makeshift FCS offensive line, the touted troop was outclassed and out manned.
The strength of the defense under Ole Miss DC Tyrone Nix has been the ability of his front four to penetrate backfields and ruin drives with negative plays. After having their names announced by commentators when previewing starters, you really never heard their names mentioned again.
Handed a 31-10 halftime lead by the Rebel offense, the defensive front took the second half off, failing to put any pressure on the quarterback and leaving the youth in the Rebel defense exposed.
Gamecock quarterbacks Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard combined for 252 yards and four touchdowns threw the air.
Just for the record, Blanchard looked like the best QB on the field, even before he threw a 30-yard TD on a fourth-and-15 in double overtime to set up the winning two point conversion.
The true freshman—a former Mr. Alabama in football who originally signed to play baseball for Mississippi State—made play after uncanny play.
From a pure football standpoint, it was something to watch, and an abject lesson in how the confidence and ability of one person can take over a football game.
All that talent and experience on the Ole Miss D-Line?
They sat back and watched it all from the front row.
There Is a Hole in the Offensive Line
Whether or not the interior offensive line—with two new guards and centers with no experience—would be an area of concern was a big question entering the season.
It remains so.
Though the Rebels had success running the ball—250 yards rushing excluding sacks—it occurred almost entirely behind the right side combo of G Rishaw Johnson and T Bobbie Massie.
LG Alex Washington did not have a good game and had little look of being an SEC quality lineman. Washington’s film session will be painful, as most negative plays were caused by defensive players in his assignment.
Yes, it is the first game and everyone knew there would be problems, but no one anticipated Washington—at 6’4” and 330lbs—to play as small as he did.
Washington is not alone as center A.J. Hawkins struggled as well.
The snap exchange was good when under center, though in shotgun there were a few bad ones, including an early snap on a fourth down attempt late in the game as the Rebels were trying to run down the clock with a lead.
Physically, Hawkins got pushed around in spots, and seemed to really tire as the game progressed. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson warned in fall camp of Hawkins’ concentration lapses when he gets worn down, a problem laid bare on Saturday.
Inexperience in the Secondary
There is little surprise that blown coverage was a big part of Saturday’s defensive performance for Ole Miss, as the two-deep contains five players who have never played major college football including four freshmen.
The unit started out well, but got exposed as the defensive line wore down and the Gamecocks offense started making adjustments.
Playing in quarters most of the first half, the secondary failed to adjust as Jacksonville became more aggressive in their routes. As receivers began running directly at safeties down the middle of the field with cross routes underneath—also in the middle of the field—the lack of experience in knowing which WR to cover led to a lot of uncontested catches.
The Rebels have shown a disheartening inability to play good defense against teams who use some variant of a spread option with triple receiver sets. Last year’s games against Auburn and Mississippi State were—essentially—blowouts in which Ole Miss never threatened.
The more Jacksonville State used their version, the more success they found.
The problem appears to be in the safeties knowing which assignment they should choose and when. They have responsibility in coverage obviously, but that also have to guard against the run.
They also have to know what the corner is going to do.
If the corner steps up against the run, the safety has to pick up his receiver.
That is not happening and it is no stretch at this point to think at this point that teams will—at the very least—bring similar packages with them every week from here on out.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has shown that he has the ability to game plan against spread offenses with wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. However, against teams using spread formations with the ability to run from them, there is nothing at this point to make the Rebel Faithful confident.
Quarterback Play Is Not Going To Kill the Rebels
From almost the first snap, fears of replacing Jevan Snead at quarterback became a non-issue. Starter Nathan Stanley opened up with two touchdown passes and looked every bit the part of an SEC quarterback.
Stanley’s lone mistake was failing to tuck in the ball when the protection broke down. The fumble bounced right into the hands of Jamison Wadley who ran it back 15 yards for a first quarter touchdown cutting the Rebels 14 point lead in half.
Yes, both Stanley and Masoli turned the ball over once, and that is a historical problem for the Rebels, but the two also led the offense to 479 yards of total offense and six touchdowns.
The loss to Jacksonville State had nothing to do with the offense.
Failure of Leadership
Ultimately, Saturday’s loss rests at the feet of head coach Houston Nutt and his staff.
The simple explanation is that the turmoil of an offseason that included much more than just the Masoli saga had the players emotionally raw and that left them vulnerable.
That should never be allowed, much less offered as an excuse.
It should never even show up on the field.
The Rebels came out of halftime with a 21 point lead and all the confidence in the world. Instead of continuing to let his players be aggressive Nutt and his staff put on the brakes and took the fire out of his team.
The game did not turn for the Rebels on Saturday when the Gamecocks started to believe they could win; it turned when Nutt believed that he already had.
Conservative play calling on both sides of the ball to start the second half had the Ole Miss team playing on its heels. All Jacksonville State had to do was keep pushing it over.
Even on defense, this Rebel team is too young and inexperienced to ever forget that a bad play is just around the corner, and that bad play—because of youth and inexperience—can easily become the first domino in a chain of bad plays.
Saturday’s Ole Miss Game against Jacksonville State was a firsthand look at that self-fulfilling prophecy caused by just a little bit of complacency or a little bit of arrogance.
Most coaches are aware of this monster and will do almost anything they can to slay it.
Houston Nutt unleashed it.
Nutt’s first task is to take ownership of the loss from his team, to stand in front of the defense that let him down and the offense that did not and tell them that he and his staff let them all down.
Every game on the rest of the Ole Miss schedule now becomes a question mark. Nothing should be taken for granted by anyone associated with Ole Miss Football.
There was enough of that on Saturday in Oxford to last a hundred seasons.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He welcomes and appreciates comments. Click here to visit his profile page for other articles.