While one game, albeit a critical one, it did not resemble the progress that athletic director Todd Stansbury held as a standard for Collins’ tenure to continue into a fifth season. Stansbury, whose own future at Tech may well be in doubt, declined a request for comment after the game from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Jackets (1-2) were outgained 547-214 and were practically unable to stop the Rebels (3-0) on the ground. The punishing Ole Miss offensive line routed its gold-jerseyed opponents, which had held Clemson and Western Carolina to a 3.0 yards-per-carry average. The Rebels ran for 316 yards on 62 carries (5.1 average) and 12 carries of 10 yards or more.
It was the ninth game in Collins’ 37-game tenure that the Jackets have lost by 30 points or more and fourth in a row against FBS competition. In those four games – Notre Dame (which finished No. 8) and national champion Georgia last year, and this year No. 5 Clemson and No. 20 Ole Miss – the Jackets have been outscored by a combined 183-10.
“The progression has not gone as quickly as we wanted it to,” Collins said. “The results have not shown, especially (regarding the 183-10 cumulative score in the past four games against power-five competition). But there’s still work to do. These young men that are in this program are amazing. They love this institution. I love this institution. There’s nobody that’s more committed to it than me.”
While the Jackets have nine more opportunities to prove their worth, the result provided Collins’ legion of critics with more material to call for his dismissal. The game’s first five-plus minutes proved a revealing window into what lay ahead for Tech.
On a brilliant afternoon, the game began with calamity afoot. Ole Miss took the opening kickoff and knifed through the Tech defense, smashing the Jackets with the run in a tone-setting touchdown drive.
“I can’t say any positives with that from (Saturday),” said Collins, asked about the team playing with a chip on its shoulder and attention to detail. “I thought we came out, I thought we were ready, but that first drive, drove right down the field on us, some explosive plays and may have been some unique things they were doing, but we still cannot let an opening drive go for seven points.”
The Jackets failed to gain a first down on their opening possession and sent out punter David Shanahan. Ole Miss defensive end Cedric Johnson rushed Shanahan untouched from the right edge and snuffed out his punt. It was the third time that Tech has had its punt blocked this season. Punt protection had become a particular area of attention for Collins after Clemson blocked two Tech punts in the season opener.
On a day in which the Jackets needed near-perfect execution, they sabotaged themselves with a mistake that was high on Collins’ list of fixes.
“Execution error, obviously, that falls on me,” Collins said. “But there was supposed to be motion, there was not. So that’s completely on me. Something we’ve worked on and didn’t get it done, so that’s a failure in execution and that falls on me.”
The special-teams blunder gave Ole Miss the ball on the Tech 20, from where the Rebels reached the end zone in six plays, five of them runs. Ole Miss scored on a third-and-goal run from the 7, a straight handoff in which the left side of the Ole Miss line blew open a hole for back Quinshon Judkins to score easily.
The mistakes weren’t rampant from thereon – an illegal-substitution penalty enabled Ole Miss to pull its punt team to go for a field goal, which was missed – but Tech’s defense was run over by Ole Miss.
The Rebels’ tempo and powerful offensive line conquered Tech, which gave Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin little reason to attempt to pass. An offense that had averaged 249.5 rushing yards in its first two games against lesser competition routinely blew the Jackets off the line of scrimmage to create wide lanes for their backs.
“Going up against a tempo team, it taps into your mental,” cornerback Myles Sims said. “To be real, if your mind isn’t there, your body will follow. That comes along with conditioning and being able to have a quick turnover rate. When you’re going up against a tempo team, it’s all about who can gain their wind the fastest, and that’s pretty much it.”
Tech quarterback Jeff Sims, who was sharp in the season opener against Clemson, was unable to lift the Jackets on Saturday. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 161 yards and was sacked seven times. Tech had one legitimate opportunity to score, on a drive that started near the end of the first quarter with Ole Miss ahead 14-0. Tech drove from its 33-yard line to inside the Ole Miss 10-yard line. Concerned about keeping pace with Ole Miss’ potent offense, Collins elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4, but Sims was sacked to end the drive.
“I’ve got to do much better to put him position so he can have success,” Collins said. “So that’ll fall on me.”
After the failed fourth-and-goal play, the Jackets did not advance past the Ole Miss 49-yard line until less than 10 minutes remained in the game and the score was 42-0.
“We’ve got to play harder, and we’ve got to come out with more energy,” running back Dontae Smith said. “But they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Everything they did was kind of what we expected. And we had a game plan for it, but us players have to go and execute that to a high level against a top-20 team.”
Tech will have to go back to work to prepare for a road game at Central Florida on Saturday. The Knights were 1-1 before their Saturday game against Florida Atlantic.
“I told (players), ‘It all falls on me’ and I will wear it,” Collins said. “I will take it. There are things we need to fix, but that’s basically the message that I told them after the game. And I’ll be honest with you; it’s not easy, but there’s still work to be done, and we’re committed to getting it done.”