Sept. 11, 2017
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.coom
Pushing any and all outside distractions aside, Ole Miss is in the process of preparing for its first road test of the 2017 season, and a long one at that. The Rebels will travel across the country to take on a Cal team that is also 2-0.
You never begrudge a win, but you certainly have to look at some of the missed opportunities and plays in that game," defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. "We’re looking forward to going out and correcting those issues and going on the road to play against a good football team in Cal-Berkeley, which is also 2-0. So we’re looking forward to that. We came out of the contest and were pretty healthy. So now we’re going into this week with the right mindset and get ready to head out to the West Coast.”
McGriff and the Rebel defense will be tasked with slowing down a Cal offense that has racked up 900 yards of total offense and scored 68 points in its first two games of the season, including an impressive road win at North Carolina to open the year. The Bears have thrown 66 times and rushed 69 times this season, averaging 168.5 yards per game on the ground and 281.0 by way of the passing game.
One of Cal's playmakers on offense, running back Tre Watson, left last week's game against Weber State with a knee injury. His status for Saturday's game is not yet known.
"Tre Watson is a good running back, very explosive," McGriff said. "He’s really good at catching the ball out of the backfield, and we must account for him. I like the way the quarterback (Ross Bowers) runs the offense. He’s a guy who is going to scramble to throw the ball. He’s not a guy who is going to extend the play forward with his feet, but given the opportunity to run, he will certainly run the ball. "
Watson and Patrick Laird have carried the bulk of the load on the ground for Cal, who will likely give Ole Miss a strong dosage of runs after UT Martin ran for 219 yards against the Rebels. Tackling was an issue for the Ole Miss defense for the second straight week against UT Martin. McGriff knows his bunch will have to do a better job at that if they hope to neutralize the Bears' offense.
"You’re not going to see many teams that will put the ball in the air if they can get chunk plays on the ground. We have to get that corrected," McGriff said. "We must stop the run to get offenses in the situation to throw the ball. That’s fact. That’s reality. Teams now are going to come in with a ground game to see if we corrected that area. If we corrected it and force them to throw it, now we have an opportunity to get a sack or challenge them in the passing game and get an interception. But first, we have to play in the running game.”
McGriff noted that he liked the way linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes played in his first action of the season and that Qaadir Sheppard will see an increased number of snaps at defensive end. Linebacker play will be crucial if Ole Miss wants to stop the run against Cal.
“Detric Bing-Dukes did a tremendous job coming off the bench. He’s one guy who wasn’t a starter and came in the game and did an outstanding job once he got on the grass," McGriff said. "He’s a guy you’ll see get more playing time. It’ll be between him and Donta Evans (at middle linebacker). Who starts will be determined by how they practice this week. We’re looking at personnel, making sure we have the right guys on the field."
McGriff also said he hopes to get freshman defensive back D.D. Bowie back in time for the game after missing last week due to a torn ligament in his thumb that required surgery.
Offensively, Ole Miss has been as explosive as any team in the SEC through the first two games. Shea Patterson was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for a school-record 489 yards and five touchdowns in Saturday's win. Cal will be the best defense he has seen yet. Ole Miss has overcome a couple of slow starts on offense and finished the game stronger than it started.
"We really have moved the ball well in both first halves," offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "The issue for me has been not finishing drives. We have had a first half turnover in both games that have stalled things. Total yards and production-wise we have been fine, but that doesn't mean anything if you don't finish the drive."
The Rebels will have an in-house advantage this week. Wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler spent the previous four seasons on Cal's staff before coming to Oxford last offseason.
"Jacob Peeler has a knowledge of just about every kid on the team," Longo said. "He has been able to give a person-to-person recap. It always helps to know personnel well, so it is obviously an advantage for us this week."
Ole Miss has proven it is dynamic in the passing game, and Longo now wants to polish the running game as a secondary weapon.
"If they put eight in the box and give us throws, we are going to take throws," Longo said. "If they drop eight in coverage then we are going to run the ball a lot. It is really going to come down to what the defense decides is the priority."
Longo may gain another weapon this week in Dawson Knox. The sophomore tight end has missed the first two games after suffering a foot injury in fall camp and will return to practice this week. Fellow tight end Octavious Cooley will likely see an increased role whether Knox returns or not, but particularly so if he is unable.
"I think he did a good job in his first game," Longo said. "He is very big and very physical. I expect his role to expand as the season progresses. He is learning the offense well.
Kickoff on Saturday is set for 9:30 p.m.