Sep. 23—OXFORD — Consider the Ole Miss secondary excited for its latest challenge.
Saturday's matchup with Tulsa (2-1) will provide the No. 16 Rebels (3-0) with their steepest test yet, particularly as a defense. The Golden Hurricane are averaging 43 points per game behind the nation's top passing offense. Quarterback Davis Brin is tied for the national lead with 11 touchdown passes leads college football with 402 passing yards per game. Wide receiver Keylon Stokes is third nationally with 457 receiving yards.
Up to this point, Ole Miss has played two FBS teams — Troy and Georgia Tech. While the Trojans boast the No. 8 passing offense in America, the Yellow Jackets are near the bottom of the pack at 120th. Central Arkansas' passing offense is 78th in the FCS in yards per game.
Tulsa and Troy are similar in terms of pace — the Golden Hurricane are running 79.5 plays per game against its FBS opponents compared to 76.5 for Troy, according to TeamRankings. Also of note is that, in one road game this season, the Golden Hurricane ran 88 plays.
Troy has actually attempted more passes than Tulsa (130 to 125). But Tulsa stretches the field more, averaging 15.3 yards per completion compared to 12.2 for Troy.
Simply put, Saturday is going to be a different animal for the Rebels, who are giving up just 4.3 points per game through three contests. And it's something Ole Miss defenders are looking forward to. The Rebels have allowed just 192.7 passing yards per game, good for 39th overall.
"Honestly, I do love it when there's a team that's going to pass the ball a lot. So, obviously, there's more opportunities to get interceptions," senior safety A.J. Finley said. "So yeah, honestly, I feel like we do get a lot more excited."
Stokes is averaging 16.3 yards per reception and JuanCarlos Santana is seventh nationally, averaging 23.3 yards on his 14 catches. Tulsa's receivers can get down the field but can also make plays in space, senior cornerback Deantre Prince said. Prince specifically noted "No. 5" — Santana — as a vertical threat. Albeit against Jacksonville State, Santana averaged 46 yards per catch last weekend en route to 137 yards and a touchdown.
"Their vertical routes are great, but they also have playmakers. The quarterback, he lets his receiver make plays. He trusts them," Prince said. "And he'd throw it up to them, and they'll come down with it."
Overall, Finley is pleased with how the Ole Miss secondary has performed. If there's one thing he would like to see more of, however, it's making plays on the ball. For as good as their defense has been, the Rebels have intercepted just three passes compared to 13 pass breakups, which is four more than defending national champion Georgia and defending SEC champion Alabama have.
"We've done a decent job. ... I personally should have made a few plays last week," Finley said. " ... But I feel like we have to get the ball out of the air more in the secondary, just make more plays when the ball gets in the air.
MICHAEL KATZ is the Ole Miss athletics reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.