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Here’s why Ole Miss’ offense fell apart against Vanderbilt

As shockingly bad as the Rebels were on defense Saturday, they may have outdone themselves on the other side of the ball.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into last Saturday’s contest against Vandy, there was a reasonable expectation that Derek Mason’s defense could potentially limit an explosive Rebel offense that had just reestablished its footing the week before against Texas A&M. Up until that point, the Commodores had specialized in preventing opposing offenses from getting the most out of possessions, even if they could drive down the field at a consistent rate.

Ole Miss wasn’t supposed to have issues moving the ball, as Vandy was slightly worse than the national average in terms of efficiency, allowing a success rate of 41 percent and 5.9 yards per play. Keep in mind these numbers came against the poop-emoji um, less potent offenses of the SEC East, and you’d begin to think that a solid performance out of Dan Werner’s squad was more than attainable.

Instead, the Rebel offense put together its worst game of the season in terms of both success rate (32 percent) and yards per play (4.65). Executing only four plays that gained at least 20 yards wasn’t enough to counter this level of inefficiency.

(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.)

When a team produces season lows on offense like Ole Miss did in Week 12, the source of the problem is hardly ever just one thing. A combination of unbalanced playcalling and an inability to finish drives contributed to Saturday’s letdown.

Ole Miss wasted chances on early downs and fell apart on later ones.

Staying on schedule was a constant issue for Shea Patterson and the offense, as they dealt with median distances of 8.5 yards on second down and seven yards on third down. In the coldest weather game of the season so far, relying too heavily on the pass, particularly on early downs, spelled disaster.

Patterson was 11-for-24 for 118 yards on standard downs, which is typically when you’re looking to set up easier yardage targets for third down. After a game in which he was fairly reliable on passing downs against A&M, he couldn’t replicate that production, putting up a passing success rate of just 17 percent in these situations. A lot of it wasn’t necessarily his fault, though. Of his 22 incompletions, just nine were broken up by the Commodore defense, meaning there were a handful of critical dropped passes by the Ole Miss receiving corps.

(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.)

Some of the failures here certainly came from getting too ambitious when starting drives, but Vanderbilt hadn’t done much on their own to make the Rebels one-dimensional.

Abandoning the run was costly and unwarranted.

Rather than drawing up a game plan that aligned with logical thought, the Rebels threw the ball 60 percent of the time on standard downs against Vandy (national average is 40 percent). Had Ole Miss struggled on the ground early on in the game, abandoning the run would have made more sense. That wasn’t the case, however, as Akeem Judd averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the first half, only to see two carries in the second.

Even on the first drive, perhaps the only time the Rebels moved the ball with ease down the field, four of the five successful plays came on the ground. Against the Aggies, Judd got a fairly even distribution of carries across all four quarters, despite the Rebels being behind by two possessions for most of the game. This time around, the playcalling got panicky once Vanderbilt established a 14-10 lead, and there was little reaction from the coaching staff to constant two-high-safety looks that invited the run.

Vandy didn’t have to resort to their usual bend-don’t-break blueprint.

On the Rebels’ seven trips inside the ‘Dores 40-yard line, they reached the end zone just twice and averaged just 2.33 points per trip, much lower than their season average of 4.66. Compare that to Vanderbilt, who scored five touchdowns on their six scoring opportunities, and it becomes easier to see why the final margin was as wide as it was.

My impulse is to blame Hugh Freeze’s red zone playcalling with numbers like these, but it didn’t boil down to something as specific as that, unfortunately. Aside from the first drive, the scoring issues weren’t merely a result of marching down the field with ease and sputtering when working with less space. On drives that did get inside Vandy’s 40, the Rebels were gifted with an average starting field position at their own 48. The Ole Miss offense was ineffective across the board, including possessions that made it into Commodore territory, and couldn’t capitalize on scoring opportunities that they hadn’t fully earned.

I’d like to say some return to stability is due come Egg Bowl time, but a sample size of 11 games tells us that inconsistent play is the norm for this group, rather than an outlier. Still, the argument can be made that Patterson has been just fine when dealing with variables under his control, and it’s hard seeing the receivers having two consecutive games of struggling to get open and hang onto routine passes.