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Red zone woes hurting talented Ole Miss offense

November 20, 2018
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Mississippi wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge (5) gets past Vanderbilt cornerback Donovan Sheffield (21) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

A glimpse at the statistics gives the impression that Mississippi’s offense has been a dominant force this season.

A deeper look shows that’s not necessarily the case.

It’s true that Ole Miss is averaging nearly 37 points and 540 yards per game this season, which both rank among the best in the Southeastern Conference. But those numbers take a dive in conference games: The Rebels are scoring just 24.7 points per game against seven league foes.

The biggest issue is that the Ole Miss offense bogs down once it gets into the red zone. The Rebels have scored just 13 touchdowns in 33 trips inside the 20-yard line in SEC play, settling for a league-high 15 field goals.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our offense and moving the football,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “But when we get in the red zone, we’ve got to make plays.”

The inability to score touchdowns instead of field goals is a huge reason why Ole Miss is in the midst of a four-game losing streak. The Rebels have been competitive in all those games, including last weekend’s 36-29 loss in overtime to Vanderbilt .

The loss to the Commodores was a perfect microcosm of the red-zone issues. Ole Miss scored just one touchdown in seven trips inside Vanderbilt’s 20-yard line, settling for five field goals. The Rebels gained 578 yards of total offense — including a career-high 457 yards passing from Jordan Ta’amu — and somehow scored less than 30 points in a game that included overtime.

Ole Miss (5-6, 1-6 SEC) has one more chance to fix the red zone issues when it hosts No. 22 Mississippi State (7-4, 3-4) on Thursday in the Egg Bowl. It will be the last game of the Rebels’ season no matter what happens: The program is ineligible for postseason play for a second straight season because of NCAA sanctions.

Luke has remained optimistic about the offense, even while acknowledging the Rebels aren’t capitalizing on having some of the league’s best playmakers, including Ta’amu and receiver A.J. Brown.

Ta’amu is throwing for an SEC-best 348 yards per game. Brown has an SEC-best 1,259 yards receiving.

“The good news is you’re getting down there a bunch with opportunities to score and this game we’ve got to go finish the fourth quarter,” Luke said. “There’s no better time to do that than the Egg Bowl.”

Ole Miss will be trying to score more touchdowns against a Mississippi State defense that’s been among the best in the SEC and the country. The Bulldogs are giving up just 12.8 points per game and have allowed only 12 touchdowns all season, which is the fewest in the league by a wide margin.

Even so, Mississippi State’s first-year coach Joe Moorhead is worried about the Rebels’ ability to make big plays.

“They have thrown for 300 yards in nine of eleven games and certainly watching the Vanderbilt game, they are able to throw it around pretty good,” Moorhead said. “The scheme lends to that, the play calling and the talent level they have helps.”

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP .

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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