After moving the ball inconsistently against Arkansas and LSU, the Ole Miss offense turned in one of its most efficient performances of the season against Auburn. They posted a 46 percent success rate, piled up 570 total yards and saw Chad Kelly break Archie’s school record for single-game passing yards.
Yet Ole Miss only put up 29 points, its lowest scoring output of the season outside of Baton Rouge. The Rebels had little trouble marching the ball up and down the field, but for the first time this year, struggled to find pay dirt once they reached the red zone. With the defense looking helpless against Auburn’s dominant rushing attack, the offense needed to capitalize on every opportunity. That didn’t happen.
The offense’s shortcomings in critical situations ultimately came down to a combination of getting off schedule late in drives and questionable play-calling in the red zone.
The offensive woes came from finishing drives, not starting them.
A nosedive in efficiency in the fourth quarter is the obvious scapegoat for the offense’s troubles, but the real culprit was a stretch of four consecutive drives spanning the first through third quarters in which Ole Miss settled for three field goals and turned the ball over on downs deep in Auburn territory.
Against Arkansas and LSU, the problem was starting drives: the Rebel offense managed just 10 points in 14 possessions in the second halves of those games, and eight of those 14 were three-and-outs. Against Auburn, however, Ole Miss punted just twice and gained an average of 52 yards per drive.
The trouble was finishing drives, something they’d been great at all season. They came into the game ranked 10th nationally with 5.63 points per scoring opportunity (defined as any drive that has a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line), but managed just 4.14 against Auburn. With seven trips inside the Tigers’ 40, this amounted to a total difference of 10.4 points, painfully close to the margin of defeat (11).
The red zone offense was stagnant.
Through seven games, Ole Miss boasted the SEC’s most efficient scoring offense in the red zone, converting these opportunities into 6 points 73 percent of the time. They found the end zone on just two of five trips against Auburn, settling for a pair of field goals and turning the ball over on downs.
The Rebels became a much less efficient offense inside the 20, where they posted a standard-downs success rate of just 38 percent. Penalties and miscues on first and second down not only gave the Tiger defense favorable third-down distances, but allowed them time to recover after being overwhelmed with tempo for most of the drive.
Quick strikes for the end zone were the key to red zone success, as the offense ran just three plays inside the 20 on the two possessions that ended in red zone touchdowns. It was when the offense slowed things down that finishing drives became a problem: they ran 10 plays in the red zone on the three drives that ended in less than 6.
The most damning of those stalls—a scoreless trip inside the Auburn 5-yard-line with the Rebels clinging to a 22-20 lead early in the third quarter—came because of the staff’s continued insistence on using backup quarterback Jason Pellerin on the goal line. Pellerin carried up the middle on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 and was stuffed twice.
Sure, before Saturday night his runs were successful 61 percent of the time and resulted in three touchdowns, but that success came against the less-than-excellent defenses of Georgia, Memphis, and Wofford (Pellerin didn’t carry the ball against Florida State, Alabama, Arkansas or LSU).
The Rebels need to find other ways to put the ball into the end zone against SEC defenses, preferably ones that include the conference’s best quarterback.