The Ole Miss Rebels are coming to Memorial Stadium for a highlight nonconference game this weekend, and stock up on arms, because we should be in store for a good old-fashioned shootout. Cal football’s defense has thus far struggled to make some adjustments in scheme under defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox after years of giving up the most points in college football, and Ole Miss has struggled to slow down minor programs in the season’s opening weeks. Traditionally, SEC football means brutal defenses locked in battle, but Pac-12-style, high-flying offense should win out Saturday.
Ole Miss comes in after two massive performances from sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, who became one of four quarterback in conference history to throw for 400 yards in consecutive weeks. Granted, South Alabama and UT Martin aren’t the strongest competition in the world, but great quarterbacks are supposed to look invincible against outclassed opponents.
The Rebels started the season in extremely strange circumstances: Head coach Hugh Freeze resigned after it was revealed, with help from his Ole Miss predecessor Houston Nutt, that he was using his school-issued phone to call escort services. A scandalous departure hardly a month before the start of the season could have doomed the Rebels’ season, but now interim head coach Matt Luke seems to have done an admirable job steadying the ship.
But Luke’s background is on offense, and the Rebels have not been able to right their defense thus far. They’ve given up an average of 25 points per game; not a good mark, considering their level of play. The run defense has been steady, but they’ve allowed over 10 yards per passing attempt, a disastrous mark.
Cal, however, will have to get its offense further on track to take advantage of the Rebels’ leaky front. After an impressive showing against UNC, Ross Bowers played poorly against Weber State and rarely looked to be on the same page as his receivers. If not for a huge performance from running back Patrick Laird, who will have to further step up after senior Tre Watson suffered a season-ending injury, Weber State would have been in the game in the final moments.
“We got so many reps in the spring and the fall,” Bowers said. “I’d never use (the QB battle) as an excuse as to why our chemistry isn’t where it should be. … This week is going to be a big week for me in terms of getting better with (receiver Demetris Robertson), because he can be such a threat for us, and we can start using him more and more, and if I can start hitting him, it’d help us.
Chemistry has certainly been an issue, as Vic Wharton III has been the only target Bowers looks comfortable finding right now. One particularly noticeable example came late in the third quarter against Weber State. Facing a crucial third down, receiver Jordan Veasy signaled that he had one-on-one coverage on the outside, but Bowers and his timing was off on an out route, and Cal missed what could have been a simple conversion.
“My deal isn’t necessarily when (the chemistry) happens, my thing is: How are we improving it each week?” said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “Maybe they didn’t get as many snaps if they weren’t named the starter (early), but we’re in the best spot as a team, because those quarterbacks battled all the way until the start of the season. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Even if Cal’s defense plays a good game, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Ole Miss still put up 30 points. The Bears will simply have to reconnect on offense to stand a chance.
“I think (Weber State) was one of those games in which we’ve got to cut down on some of those critical mental errors,” Baldwin said. “And that starts with me too, I’m talking about all of us. At the end of the day, our guys have done some of their best stuff late. No matter how rough it was early, we’ve shown a tendency to be late in the game with a lot in the tank and finishing drives.”