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Ole Miss' offensive collapse against Arkansas started with early-down failures

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The Rebels’ inability to stay on schedule led to a drought that no one saw coming.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It was pretty much assumed that Ole Miss would be able to move the ball with ease against an Arkansas defense that didn’t appear to specialize in much of anything. Even stumbling through much of the first half, most concerns were lifted after Chad Kelly led a five-play, 48-second touchdown drive right before halftime. But just as the Rebel defense began solidifying in the second half, the offense collapsed.

Seeing Hugh Freeze’s offense juxtaposed with Arkansas coordinator Dan Enos’ group brought to light how fundamentally different the two teams are in terms of offensive philosophy and how they deploy their talent. The former uses its exceptional quarterback and bevy of talented receivers to leverage tempo and serve up quick strikes as a way of putting the defense on its heels early and often. The latter is extremely methodical in how it’s always setting itself up for the next play, maintaining a sense of composure and rationale that as an Ole Miss fan I’m not familiar with.

The second half against Arkansas showed what happens when Ole Miss' uptempo passing attack isn't clicking. With no run game to maintain efficiency, Hugh Freeze's offensive machinery sputtered.

Ole Miss did itself no favors on first down.

What killed Ole Miss more than anything else in the second half was a glaring inability to make critical progress on early downs, repeatedly setting themselves up for obvious passing situations. Coming into the game, the offense was averaging 8.1 yards per play on first down. That number went down to 2.1 after halftime Saturday.

The table below shows just how inefficient the Rebel offense became in the second half, particularly on standard downs.

Overall Efficiency Standard Downs Passing Downs First Downs
First Half 53% 59% 33% 56%
Second Half 26% 19% 38% 8%
Season Average 46% 51% 34% 45%

No one is incredibly efficient on passing downs, mostly because they require a bigger gain to be considered a successful play. How a team performs in these scenarios is measured by how it stands relative to the rest of the league, and Ole Miss compares well to the national average of 31 percent. In the second half, the Rebels actually performed better on passing downs than on the easier standard downs, which is a thing that should never ever happen.

For an offense to overcome these tougher situations and move the ball consistently, minimizing the number of passing downs they get themselves into is key. On Saturday, that was clearly an issue, as 22 of their plays were on passing downs. For a point of reference, Ole Miss faced only 10 of these plays against Georgia, a defense that ranks ahead of Arkansas in just about every category.

The run game’s disappearance didn’t help things.

Ole Miss’ rushing attack had shown steady improvement against Georgia and Memphis, a lot of which can be attributed to both the offensive line and the individual runners. That success was expected to continue against an Arkansas run defense that came in ranked 102nd in efficiency and dead last in explosiveness. Indeed, by halftime, Ole Miss was running at a success rate of 47 percent, topping their season average of 40 percent.

Then things went downhill in the second half.

Ole Miss got the yards it needed on the ground just 29 percent of the time in the second half, and all but one successful run came from Chad Kelly. With Akeem Judd and Eugene Brazley struggling, Kelly had to carry the load on the ground, averaging 8.2 yards per carry and finding the end zone twice. Given the pair’s ineffectiveness, it became obvious pretty quickly that Freeze had largely abandoned the run, especially when the offense repeatedly lined up with an empty backfield on first down. Running backs carried the ball just seven times in the second half and only one of those gained at least five yards. Neither Judd or Brazley had a single carry in the fourth quarter.

Give Arkansas credit for limiting a potent offense, but Ole Miss could have helped itself out. There didn’t seem to be an informed process for adjusting to the second-half struggles. The long shots by Kelly on first down stopped working, as did the early runs, yet there was no shift over to a shorter passing game. Perhaps some of the offensive shortcomings boiled down to the line offering up little in the way of protection, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to the coaching staff midway through the season (especially since the Hogs came in ranked 18th in adjusted sack rate).

All things considered, though, there is a reason the offense was expected to produce at a high level against Arkansas, and this speed bump isn’t necessarily indicative of a long-term slump.