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COLUMBIA, Mo. — If Mizzou hopes to extend its winning streak to five games and open 2-0 in SEC play for the first time since 2013, the Tigers have to slow down an explosive Ole Miss running game and protect Kelly Bryant from the Rebels' rush. Here's a closer look at three crucial matchups for Saturday's 6 p.m. homecoming game. 

Rich Rod’s rushing attack

vs.

Missouri’s defense
(minus Cale Garrett)

Before we get to the Tigers, let’s review what Ole Miss did last week: The Rebels gashed Vanderbilt for 413 rushing yards … averaged 9.4 yards per attempt … and had runs of 24, 30, 33, 54, 78 and 84 yards. Some of those carries would have gone much longer, but the rules still state you have to stop in the end zone. For the season, Ole Miss already has 10 rushing plays of 30 yards or more. (Mizzou, not a bad running team, has all of two.) The Rebels are running the ball 52 times a game in conference play and against Power Five opponents averaging 5.7 yards per carry, seventh-best in Power Five football.

The Rebels might be one-dimensional, but that dimension was overpowering last week.

This should come as no surprise considering the man calling plays for the Rebels this year: Rich Rodriguez, one of the game’s foremost authorities on spread offense, the innovator of the zone-read option play and overseer of electric quarterback-centered rushing attacks. At his past stops, Rodriguez terrorized defenses with Shaun King, Woody Dantzler, Pat White, Denard Robinson and Khalil Tate. Now, it’s John Rhys Plumlee, who took over the controls when Matt Corral suffered a rib injury and might never give them back.

Plumlee ran for 165 yards last week as the pilot in Rich Rod’s loaded backfield. Co-pilots Scottie Phillips, Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy combined for another 250 yards on 20 carries — getting 204 of those yards after contact, according to SECStatCat.com. Ealy ripped off a 78-yard TD, followed by Conner a series later going for 84, which prompted a classic “Old School” reference from Columbia’s own Tom Hart on the SEC Network broadcast, “Bring your green hat! We’re going streaking! Snoop-A-Loop!”

Ealy, like Conner, is a true freshman. The five-star recruit, at 5-9, 180 pounds is more of a scatback, but he’s averaging a team-best 6.3 yards after contact. Phillips is the team’s relative workhorse and leads the Rebels with 24 broken tackles.

For four straight games, Missouri has controlled the line of scrimmage and tackled soundly. The Wyoming game seems like ages ago.

“That's kind of the outlier,” Rodriguez said this week. “You know, the rest of the games, nobody can do much of anything on the ground against them.”

But the Tigers now face a potent rushing attack without their leader in the middle and will replace Garrett, one of the SEC’s most experienced defenders, with a first-time starter, Cam Wilkins.

Rich Rod’s offense is by no means the same as Wyoming’s run-heavy attack, but the Rebels use misdirection to cause confusion and lean heavily on read-option plays to expose running lanes. Ole Miss ran inside zone read running plays on 23 of its 44 attempts against Vandy, according to SECStatCat, for 195 yards. You can bet Rodriguez will target Mizzou’s new starter plenty of times, hoping to find a crack in a defense that’s been impenetrable for four weeks.

“You look at the number of ways creatively in the run game they attack you,” Odom said, “whether it’s misdirection, inside or outside zone action, all the different ways schematically they present themselves, if your eyes are in he wrong spot you’re going to get gashed and they’re going to get some yards. We have to be very, very assignment sound and be great tacklers.”

Missouri defensive coordinator
Ryan Walters

vs.

Ole Miss QB John Rhys Plumlee

The Tigers have faced two freshman quarterbacks this year with mixed results: Wyoming’s Sean Chambers was a problem; Ryan Hilinski got pummeled. Now comes another rookie QB in Plumlee. We touched on his running prowess earlier, but as long as the Tigers hold their own against the run, Plumlee will have to put the ball in the air. He completed just 20 passes in his two starts — against Alabama and Vanderbilt — and for the season has completed just 50.9 percent of his passes and posted an efficiency rating of 110.7. Only 15 of his attempts have come on passes targeted 20 yards or deeper with only five completions. Most of his attempts have come in the 0 to 10-yard range, where he’s completed 16 of 26.

Now he faces a Mizzou defense that’s been one of the nation’s best against the pass. That is not a typo. Here’s where the Tigers rank nationally in some of the most important pass defense statistics:

Pass yards allowed per game: No. 2 (138.4)

Pass yards allowed per attempt: No. 2 (4.6)

Completion percentage allowed: No. 4 (47.7)

Passer rating allowed: No. 2 (83.5)

Interceptions per game: No. 6 (1.4)

Obviously the schedule comes into play here, but it’s not like Mizzou has faced five service academies. West Virginia, Troy and South Carolina have been potent passing teams this year and historically. One thing Walters defense has done well is disguise coverages. The Tigers are still a heavy blitz team but often show pressure early and back out just before the snap. 

Creating confusion and indecision is the key — especially against a young QB.

“We’ve tried it previously and we ended up getting out of position,” Odom said. “It comes with experience at every position, also with the teaching that Ryan and (cornerbacks coach) David (Gibbs) are doing on the back end, being able to speak the same language with (linebackers coach) Vernon (Hargreaves) on what it needs to look like and then not only teach it but apply it. The kids are able to execute it. It’s been a bonus for us. We have to continue to do it because now everybody has seen the things we’re doing.”

Including the Rebels.

“Nowadays defensive guys are pretty creative,” Rodriguez said this week. “They'll show blitz and back out. Mizzou does that. They'll walk backers up like they’re blitzing and they'll pop back out, disguise coverages. So you have to mentally see that prepare. Some of that we do in practice but it's a little bit different in the game because it’s so much faster and you’ve got to process things so much quicker. Really good quarterback play starts with his eyes, where his eyes are at, both in the run game in the pass game. Our guys have been pretty good at that, but you know there's still a process to getting great at that.”

Ole Miss pass rush

vs.

Missouri’s offensive line

The Rebels play some defense, too. Vandy is a hot mess on offense this year, but still features future pros at running back, receiver and tight end. Against the Landshark defense, Vandy had 14 possessions and managed just two field goals. The Commodores punted 11 times and converted just 2 of 17 third downs.

The Rebels rank third in the SEC with 17 sacks, led by 329-pound nose guard Benito Jones with three. Ole Miss plays a base three-man front with bulky edge-setters flanking Jones, 325-pound Josiah Coatney and 300-pound Austrian Robinson.

“The best pass defense … is a quarterback on his back,” said Rebels defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre, the former Colorado head coach.

The Tigers will counter with an offense line that’s been shuffling pieces all season. Mizzou has started four different O-line combinations in five weeks and could go for a fifth different look this week. The Tigers have allowed nine sacks in five games, putting them on pace to allow more than any other season under Odom. Mizzou ranked among the nation’s leaders the last three years, allowing 14 in 2016 and 13 each of the last two seasons.

The line figures to shoulder even more pressure to protect this week with Kelly Bryant playing with a sprained knee and a brace on his left leg. It would be naïve to think his mobility in the pocket will be as good as usual.

“They have a very disruptive front,” MU defensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “Their nose guard is a real problem. Their rushers create pressure on the quarterback.. They do a good job with their coverages. They really smothered Vanderbilt when you watch that Vanderbilt tape. They’re playing a high level of defense. It’s going to be a challenge.”

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