Second-year Mississippi coach Matt Luke settled into his postgame press conference chair with a steely stare and a grim face. Kind of strange for a man who was in charge of an offense that put up 76 points in a 35-point victory.
Then again, he also had to watch his defense.
So as much as he wanted to celebrate the Rebels’ 76-41 victory over Southern Illinois on Saturday, there was also the realization that his defense had given up more than 600 total yards to a team from the Football Championship Subdivsion.
And guess what? No. 1 Alabama comes to town next week.
“Obviously, we need to play much better than that,” the Gulfport native said.
The wide final margin wasn’t indicative of a game that was much closer than anticipated. In fact, this one was downright bizarre.
Southern Illinois led 38-35 at halftime and put pressure on Ole Miss throughout the third quarter before the Rebels finally responded with an avalanche of fourth quarter points — including two defensive touchdowns — that ended the upset bid.
Ole Miss had huge offensive numbers. Jordan Ta’amu threw for 448 yards and five touchdowns while Scottie Phillips ran for 107 yards and two more scores. The problem was the defense was giving up huge numbers, too.
“We played pretty efficient on offense,” Luke said. “And we needed every bit of it.”
The Salukis (1-1) had never beaten a team from the Southeastern Conference and were 3-30 coming into the game against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. But they pushed the Rebels (2-0) for most of the afternoon, flinging the ball all over the field against a completely unprepared Ole Miss defense.
The Rebels finally broke the game open early in the fourth quarter when Vernon Dasher snagged an interception and ran it back 88 yards for a touchdown and a 55-41 lead. The play seemed to break the Salukis’ spirit and the Rebels pulled away.
Ta’amu said there was never any panic on the Ole Miss sideline.
“I just felt like we needed to go out there and keep scoring,” Ta’amu said. “Our defense was going to come in and help us out a little bit.”
Southern Illinois’ Sam Straub completed 29 of 47 passes for 382 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. D.J. Davis ran for 121 yards. Straub was brilliant for most of the game, but his two fourth-quarter interceptions ended any chance at the win.
“It still hurts,” Straub said. “We didn’t come in here to play well, we came in to win. We were still playing with that effort, even when the game got away from us in the second half. I’m proud of my guys.”
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said earlier in week that he expected Southern Illinois to rely heavily on the running game. Instead, the Salukis threw five straight pass plays on the first drive, including a 9-yard TD from Straub to Nigel Kilby.
Kilby was one of many SIU receivers who were running coverage-free in the first half. Straub had little problem connecting against the oft-confused Ole Miss defense, completing 19 of 25 passes for 299 yards and four touchdowns before halftime.
The lead wouldn’t last, but it was certainly entertaining. The two teams combined for nearly 1,300 total yards.
The Ole Miss offense was very, very good. The Ole Miss defense was very, very bad. It’s probably slightly more complicated than that, but not really. The Rebels have an offense that’s among the best in the nation, but it isn’t going to matter if they can’t figure out how to tackle anyone.
It was a terrific effort from Southern Illinois, which had a 4-7 record last season, but played toe-to-toe with a SEC opponent. The Salukis ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, but shouldn’t be ashamed by anything that happened on Saturday.
NASTY WIDE OUTS
The Ole Miss receivers — also known by the nickname Nasty Wide Outs (NWO) — had another huge game. A.J. Brown caught eight passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. D.K. Metcalf caught seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Braylon Sanders — filling in for the injured DaMarkus Lodge — caught four passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
Ole Miss hosts No. 1 Alabama next Saturday.
Southern Illinois hosts Southeast Missouri next Saturday.