Before the Georgia game two weeks ago, Ole Miss had been atrocious at running the football this season. Against Florida State, the Rebels averaged just 2.7 yards per carry and all but abandoned the run in the second half. Against Bama, the offensive line was mauled and Ole Miss averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. This was disappointing considering that the ground attack, bolstered by a deep stable of capable backs and a promising pair of young offensive guards, was supposed to improve this season.
In Saturday’s 48-28 win over Memphis, the ground game finally realized its potential. Subtracting a lone sack, the Rebels gobbled up 268 rushing yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Ole Miss’ rushing success rate, which was 32.5 percent during the first four games (119th in the country), was 60 percent against Memphis. Opportunity rate (the percentage of times a rusher gains at least five yards) increased from a season average of 36 percent (100th in the country) to 44 percent.
After not having an individual player go over 65 yards rushing in any of the previous four games, two backs broke the 100-yard mark against the Tigers. Akeem Judd romped for 108 on 15 totes (7.2 yards per carry), but the real surprise was Eugene Brazley, who averaged 9.2 yards per carry while racking up 124 yards and two touchdowns. Twelve of his 13 carries and every bit of his yardage came in the second half, which played a critical role in Ole Miss’ ability to salt away a lead that dwindled to as little as six at one point in the third quarter.
Who knew Brazley had moves like this?
Check out how much more effective Brazley and Judd were against Memphis compared to the rest of the season:
|Yards/carry||Success rate||Highlight yards/opportunity|
|Memphis||First 4 games||Memphis||First 4 games||Memphis||First 4 games|
So was this a sign of genuine progress or simply the result of playing a weaker opponent?
Here are three reasons to think it’s the former.
1. Memphis has been good against the run this season.
According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, the Tigers came into Saturday night as the No. 8 team in the country in defensive rushing success rate. Though susceptible to big plays (122nd in rushing isoPPP), they’d still held their first three opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and hadn’t allowed any of them to go over 125 yards. Memphis also ranked in the top 11 in opportunity rate and stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage).
Sure, those first three opponents were an FCS school and bad Kansas and Bowling Green teams. But...
2. A nearly identical Memphis defense was also good against the run last season.
The Tigers returned four linebackers with at least 20 tackles (though Jackson Dillon, who bragged about knocking Robert Nkemdiche unconscious last year, missed Saturday’s game with an injury) and all but one of their defensive linemen. That group helped last year’s team rank a decent 48th in rushing S&P+. More significantly, they helped limit Ole Miss to just 1.7 yards per carry and make the Rebels one-dimensional during the Liberty Bowl upset.
3. Ole Miss was also a lot better on the ground against Georgia last week.
The Rebels had an opportunity rate of 44 percent and averaged 7.2 yards per carry during the beatdown win over the Dawgs. Here’s what Red Cup stats guru Will Gates wrote about the improved play of the O-line:
The offensive line made major strides [against Georgia], demonstrating stability and breathing life into what had been an inconsistent running game before this week. Contrary to what many (including myself) had feared, Hugh Freeze didn’t have to revert to a one-dimensional air raid after all.
While Ole Miss certainly benefited from facing a less formidable opponent up front, it’s not crazy to believe that their success running the ball can be sustained throughout the season. A line that is beginning to find its long-term rotation should continue to build cohesion and provide even more opportunities for a capable backfield.
Paired with the Georgia game, the Memphis game shows a pattern of improvement. (I didn't bother including numbers for the Rebels' Week 2 FCS opponent, Wofford.)
*We only used the first three quarters of the Georgia game. The rushing success rate dropped to 40 percent after the backups came in during garbage time.
No, you shouldn’t expect the running game to be this good again.
Ole Miss doesn’t need it to be. All Freeze needs from his ground attack is enough baseline competence to keep his offense balanced. Chad Kelly will handle the rest through the air.
This probably wasn’t a watershed moment. The offensive line will probably still struggle at times against sturdier, more athletic SEC defensive fronts. But the Memphis game did suggest that the running game is making incremental improvement, which should scare the hell out of SEC defensive coordinators.