A few weeks ago, we looked at Hugh Freeze's offense through three seasons. There were a number of interesting statistics that stood out to me, and I thought it worthwhile to analyze the offense's counterpart statistically. Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack has spent three seasons molding the team into an SEC defense. As I'm sure most of you know, last year he fielded the best scoring defense in the country.
With all the pieces coming together really well, Wommack was dynamite, and the statistics obviously back that up. The secondary, featuring departed cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt, was everywhere and could cover everyone (until... you know... the Peach Bowl or something). The defensive line wreaked havoc on nearly everyone it faced, and the linebackers were incredibly experienced and disciplined, not falling to the misdirections plays that had typically been Ole Miss defenses' undoing. It was, in some ways, perfect. This season, there are tremendous expectations placed on the defense, mostly due to its seeming ability to handle and possibly improve on the secondary even after losing two NFL players.
I won't use this time to give any foresight on whether the defense really will be better, as some people have suggested. Instead, let's just look at what they've done over the last three years to see how it got to this point.
Consistency Against the Run
As you can see the yards per carry numbers for Ole Miss have generally been about the same (3.5-3.9 per season). The startling statistic to me was really the jump from 2012 to 2013 in terms of rushing touchdowns allowed. It's difficult to put a finger on why the run defense suffered in Wommack's second season. There weren't major losses in the front seven, and they added the likes of Robert Nkemdiche. They certainly played against different teams in 2013 (namely a Bret Bielema-coached Razorback team), but that's still a very significant defense in both touchdowns allowed and yards per carry allowed.
But then the Rebels rebounded. In 2014 Ole Miss allowed just nine rushing touchdowns... in a whole season. The front seven was flying to the ball with the additions of Fadol Brown, a healthy CJ Johnson, and Marquis Haynes (sacks count as rushing yards) making a big difference. The linebackers had an easier job, making the plays that were set out in front of them by a strong defensive line, and the results came.
The Pass Defense Has Shown Drastic Improvements
To go from 7.5 yards per pass attempt to just 6.2 is magnificent and makes a tremendous difference on the viability of the defense. Limiting the pass helps free up players to blitz and makes third and long a near certainty to get off the field and get the ball back for your offense.
One thing that was pretty shocking to me while compiling these statistics was the sack totals for 2012 (38) and 2014 (28) despite a similar number of plays (another shocking stat). So the number of sacks declined (in spite of a similar number of total plays), but the yards per attempt dropped off as well. There's only one real answer, and it's pretty obvious. The secondary just didn't give up a ton of big plays in 2014. They usually kept teams in front of them and forced them to score with long, turnover-free drives. And that's where this last chart comes in.
As you can see, that just didn't usually work out for opposing offenses. The Ole Miss secondary picked off 22 passes in 2014, allowing just 12 touchdown passes (the second consecutive year with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed). Obviously, having a ball hawk like Senquez Golson helped a lot, but there were nine total Rebels with at least one interception. It was a team effort, built primarily on the back of a lack of blown coverages. Quarterbacks didn't have wide open options very often, so they were forced to fit balls into tight spots, and that's a recipe for disaster against a Dave Wommack defense.
So, They Were Pretty Good
I realize that a good bit of this information has been obvious for most well-informed Rebel fans, but seeing the statistics laid out this way really shows you just how good the defense was. They kept offenses out of the end zone via reliable, steady play and huge turnovers. When a team is able to be steady and explosive, that's a recipe for success. I'll wait to anoint 2015's version as being better than last year's. There are just too many unknowns.
But there's a lot of potential.