Ole Miss’ defense suffered several back-breaking plays in the second half against Vanderbilt, but perhaps the most damaging was the one that led to the ejection of starting linebacker DeMarquis Gates.
Ole Miss trailed just 14-10 when the Commodores began the third quarter with the ball, and on the second play of the drive, the Rebels snuffed out a reverse and knocked the runner out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. The ball came loose at the end, and though no fumble was called on the field, the refs stopped the game to review. The replay confirmed a fumble, but also showed that the foot of Ole Miss safety Tony Conner was out of bounds when he scooped up the recovery. Instead of a turnover that handed the Rebels the ball inside the Vandy 30-yard line, the refs emerged from the replay to make the surprise announcement that Gates had been ejected for an illegal targeting penalty. The ‘Dores would go on to score the first of three second-half touchdowns and win 38-17.
The play will continue to resonate into the Egg Bowl. Because the targeting call came in the second half, Gates will have to miss the first half against Mississippi State, a game the Rebels need to win to become bowl eligible. Gates, the only reliable option Ole Miss has at linebacker, came into Week 12 leading the team with 52 tackles, with 5.5 of them for a loss, and four sacks. The importance of Gates to a thin linebacker corps and the defense overall can’t be overstated, and losing him for a half will stretch the capability of the defense against a State offense that’s found success running the ball this year.
Bill C.’s latest numbers rank the Bulldogs ninth in the country in rushing S&P+, 14th in adjusted line yards, and 31st in explosiveness. It doesn’t help that their arsenal includes a running quarterback, something that Ole Miss has struggled against all season. Nick Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs with 7.0 yards per carry and eight touchdowns this season and added 131 yards and four scores in the loss to Arkansas on Saturday. The Rebels’ struggles stopping the run are well-documented, and the Bulldogs’ solid ground game isn’t a good matchup for Ole Miss, especially without Gates.
Fitzgerald also came into his own as a passer against the Razorbacks, throwing for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Now, he’ll get to take on a defense that will have to give a significant number of snaps in the first half to former walk-on Tayler Polk. The last time Polk started in place of Gates came against Auburn, when the Tigers romped for 307 yards.
Even with Gates playing, the Rebels ranked 106th in linebacker havoc rate, 59th in defensive rushing S&P+, and 111th in defensive IsoPPP, according to Bill Connelly. There isn’t a scenario where the defense gets better without Gates, so it could be another long night, or at least first half, for the Landsharks.