Nov. 13, 2017
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
With its record even for the first time in over a month, Ole Miss will aim to win three in a row for the first time this season as it prepares for an emotional senior day bout with Texas A&M.
A senior class that has seen some of the highest peaks and lowest valleys in the history of the program, will be honored on the field before their final game in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“Just want to start off by saying this is going to be a special night,” Luke said. “This is a special group of seniors. This group has been a part of maybe the top three offenses in school history, two New Year’s Six bowl games and obviously they’re the most affected this year by the bowl ban. They didn’t have the opportunity to go to a bowl, but they’ve continued to fight, fighting through injuries.”
The Aggies have had an up-and-down season of their own, one that’s consisted of blown leads, a couple road wins and multiple quarterbacks. Texas A&M has a running quarterback Kellen Mond and more of a throwing threat in Nick Starkel. Mond has tossed eight touchdowns and six interceptions while Starkel has seven and just one intercepted pass.
“Kellen Mond was 5-2 and now they’re coming back with Nick Starkel,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “He can pinpoint the ball and has a big arm. He can make every throw. They’re going to challenge us vertical. He’s going to throw the ball around a little bit more. He’s not going to run as much as the previous quarterbacks. He’s coming off an ankle injury, so he’s going to sit back there and throw the ball.”
Ole Miss will be forced to deal with a solid Texas A&M pass rush, an asset that has helped them become one of the most efficient teams in the country in terms of getting off of the field on third down. It will be a test for the Rebel offensive line as well as to Jordan Ta’amu’s mobility.
“The biggest thing for us, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but you don’t want to get in a drop-back game where you’re throwing it and they know you’re throwing it,” Luke said. “As long as you can stay balanced and keep your third downs to a minimum, where you’ve stayed out of those one-on-one pass-rush scenarios.”
Ta’amu has continued to play well in the absence of Shea Patterson. The junior signal-caller has tossed for 1246 yards, seven touchdowns and has thrown just two interceptions. He is completing 73.5 percent of his passes and has been as efficient as anyone on staff could’ve asked him to be and more. The offense looks more fluid than it has all season. Part of that is Phil Longo’s system needing some time to set in and the other is the play of Ta’amu. He’s gotten the help of his supporting cast as well, namely the offensive line and running back Jordan Wilkins.
“The o-line is protecting for Jordan. They’re run blocking for (Jordan) Wilkins and company and the emergence of Dawson Knox has been a plus,” Longo said. “All position rooms have been playing better football, and that’s helped Jordan. And then the third thing is Jordan is a talent in his own right. We’re blessed to have — I think we have more than two — but we’re blessed to have two guys right now that can perform in the SEC West.”
It’s not a secret anymore what opposing offenses are going to do to Ole Miss. The Rebels have struggled to stop the run all season and know they will get a heavy dosage of that again on Saturday. The Aggies are running for 173 yards per game and have a lot of flexibility in what they can do because of the two quarterbacks that comprise an athletic backfield.
“The biggest problem Texas A&M gives you offensively is they spread the field with very good players everywhere,” Luke said. “They’ve got good receivers you have to account for. You have to think about putting two on some guys sometimes, and that gives you problems. It gives you a light box, and they have very capable running backs with Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams. They’re very good players.”
The biggest threat the Aggies pose on the perimeter is speedy wideout Christian Kirk. He has caught 46 balls for 575 yards this season and six touchdowns. He is a deep threat that Ole Miss must track on the field at all times.
“He’s one of the best players in our league and has been for a long time,” Luke said. “He’s a very good player. He’s dynamic when he gets the ball in his hands. They do a great job utilizing him out of the backfield and as a receiver and kick returner.”
Ole Miss will be without wide receiver Van Jefferson, who dislocated his elbow in a collision with a Louisana defender last week. Luke did not want to completely rule the sophomore out for the Egg Bowl entirely, but it seems unlikely he will be able to play. Defensive back Jalen Julius and defensive lineman Ross Donnelly are questionable. Guard Alex Givens is probable after suffering a concussion against Kentucky.
Kickoff on Saturday is set for 6 p.m.