As he sat basking in the reflective glare of the recently recaptured Golden Egg, Hugh Freeze was asked what he thought had changed for the previously turnover-prone Chad Kelly, who had just gone a third straight game without an interception. After starting into an abstract cliche about added focus and comfort in the system, Freeze paused, then abruptly steered into a refreshingly tangible explanation.
"I think another thing that probably helped him was we made the decision three weeks ago, with the last three games, now it's time to put our quarterback runs in," Freeze said. "... I think that gave him an additional freedom, or feeling anyway of ‘as soon as I feel things breaking down, I'm gonna use my legs' and that helped him probably not force some."
Indeed, Kelly's ground production increased significantly against Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State. With more designed runs and a truer form of the read-option installed, he tallied double digit carries for at least 74 yards in each of those three games, something he did just once during the previous nine games. After rushing for just one touchdown and 182 yards in his first five SEC matchups, he ran for six scores and 276 over the last three.
"Earlier in the year we were not calling any of those runs because you want to protect him, take care of him, get him through the year," Freeze said. "But with about three to go, we said ‘alright it's time, let's do everything we can do.'"
That tacit permission to run on designed plays also increased Chad's confidence to improvise ("Those gave him the comfort to pull it down and scramble more," according to Freeze), which has put him noticeably at ease in the pocket. Where he once might have forced a pass into coverage, he's now pulling the ball down and creating with his legs. Running the ball has made Kelly a more efficient passer.
Just check out the correlation over the last eight games (excluding a stat stuffer against New Mexico State).
* Not including sacks, which are otherwise lumped in with college rushing figures for some dumb reason
The only outlier there is the Florida game, where most of those 11 carries came in the second half after it was already a blowout.
A more efficient quarterback leads to a more efficient offense. In the next table, you can see the spike in Ole Miss' offensive success rate, a measurement of how well an offense "stays on track" by keeping itself in advantageous down and distances.
|Offensive success rate*||41.7%||36.7%||49.3%||47.3%||39.6%||60.6%||56.9%||60.5%|
* Not including garbage time
In other words, Ole Miss' offense was, on a per game average, 16.4 percent more effective at moving the ball once Chad was given the freedom to run.
The tempting question to ask, of course, is why the coaches didn't take Kelly's training wheels off sooner. But there's a reason for training wheels: so the fancy new bike doesn't get wrecked when you take it out for the first couple of spins. Chad made it through the entire regular season healthy, so I'm not gonna spend too much time second-guessing the coaches here (though I will say that someone needs to teach that dude how to slide to the damn ground).
The time for caution is long past, however, so expect to see Chad spinning his wheels plenty during the bowl game.