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Vanderbilt’s defense gives it a chance to hang with Ole Miss

The Rebels have found a QB, but the Commodores have a way of keeping things tight against more complete teams.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The last time I said Ole Miss wouldn’t have much trouble as a heavy favorite against a lesser opponent, the Rebels fell into a 21-10 hole against Georgia Southern, so I’m not doing that again. A cautious approach against Vanderbilt may be fitting here anyway, as every loss the ‘Dores have suffered in 2016 has come down to a difference of one possession, with the exception to a slip against Georgia Tech. The Commodores’ defense has proven that they’re fully capable of limiting even the most potent of offenses.

Before the magical fourth quarter comeback against Texas A&M, there was legitimate concern among Ole Miss fans that a loss in Nashville was imminent. The Rebels are in a different mindset after last Saturday’s excitement, and the current betting spread of -10 is closer to what people would have expected before the start of the season.

Even so, the Vanderbilt defense’s ability to keep the team in games means an upset is very much still in play.

Like last year, Saturday could come down to finishing drives.

Possibly due to an Alabama hangover, the 2015 Khaki Bowl was frustratingly close for most of the game, until Ole Miss put it away with a nine-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to win, 27-16. The Rebels put up a middling success rate of 42 percent, but it dwarfed Vanderbilt’s 35 percent.

(Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down.)

Judging by that wide efficiency margin, along with pregame perception, it shouldn’t have been that nerve-wracking of a contest, but Chad Kelly and the offense left a lot of points on the field. They were just just 3-of-13 on third down conversions, and Kelly threw two picks that set up the Commodores with great field position. On trips inside Vanderbilt’s 40-yard line, Ole Miss averaged just 3.9 points, well below their season average of 5.4.

The Commodores have shifted from having a downright shutdown defense to more of a bend-don’t-break unit, as they’ve declined from an efficiency and explosiveness standpoint since last season. They’ve improved when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone, however, averaging 3.6 points per opposing scoring opportunity. Whatever red zone package Hugh Freeze has in mind for Saturday, it better be amazing and not involve a certain backup quarterback (no offense, Jason).

Vandy has already given a solid offense fits this year.

Considering Bill C.’s S&P+ favored Auburn by 34 points prior to Week 10’s expected drubbing of the ‘Dores on the Plains, it raised a few eyebrows to see a final margin of just seven for the Tigers. Despite posting an absurdly high rushing success rate of 51 percent against Vanderbilt (the national average is 43), Rhett Lashlee’s squad somehow only put up 23 points.

Along with preventing them from finishing drives (four points per scoring opportunity), Vanderbilt did a decent job of knocking them off schedule and forcing them into passing downs. Up until that game, Auburn’s passing efficiency was predicated on forcing defenses to over-commit to stopping the run and punishing them with play action. The Commodores kept them more honest, and took out the long ball altogether.

When the Tigers were dealing with a longer target of yards to gain, Vandy was fine with giving the quarterback(s) a short part of the field to work with, provided they could swoop in and stop them from getting a first down after the catch. Auburn completed seven of nine passes on passing downs, but it only amounted to 49 yards and a success rate of 11 percent.

(Passing downs are defined as second down with at least eight yards to go or third/fourth with at least five to go. All other situations are standard downs.)

Derek Mason is fine with opposing teams eating up yards if his squad eventually hunkers down when backed up in their own territory. Whether or not that can work against Ole Miss is an entirely different question.

Ole Miss may have too much big-play potential for any of this to matter.

When you can drive down the field with a brief sequence of explosive plays, the challenges of having to work with a shorter field become irrelevant over time. Of the Rebel offense’s 40 touchdown drives this season, 24 have required just seven plays or less. While it may be unfair to expect Shea Patterson’s fourth quarter performance to be the immediate norm, the signs are there that he’s ready to pick up where Chad Kelly left off to some degree.

Vandy boasts a front that’s going to try to eliminate any numbers advantage Freeze’s spread offense is designed to have, and it starts with making them one dimensional. They’ve stuffed 24.2 percent of runs in 2016 (17th nationally), and they’re led by linebacker Zach Cunningham, who’s tallied 15.5 tackles for loss this year (the next highest on the team has 4.5). A few unsuccessful runs on early downs could tempt Ole Miss to abandon the run entirely, but that hasn’t worked out so well in the past.

The Rebels ran the ball nine times in the fourth quarter against A&M, despite being behind for all but 30 seconds. That commitment to offensive balance kept defenses honest and opened up several opportunities for big plays in the passing game, without which a win wouldn’t have happened. By now, Freeze is probably well aware of his offense’s strengths and limitations, and he has the tools to make Vanderbilt’s plan of keeping the field in front of them infeasible.