Coming into the 2016 season, there were plenty of reasons to view Ole Miss’ lofty projections with a skeptical eye. The secondary was young, the linebackers a major question mark and the offensive line unproven. Even the most critical of analysts, however, didn’t predict the Rebels would head into the regular season finale battling for bowl eligibility.
That’s where Hugh Freeze’s 5-6 bunch sits now, needing to pull out a win in a historically unpredictable rivalry game against Mississippi State to save its postseason. Sure, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ numbers give Ole Miss a 78 percent chance of winning and the latest spread has the Rebs by 7.5 points, but that means little in the Egg Bowl, a game which two of the last three Vegas favorites have lost.
The Bulldogs’ lopsided loss to Arkansas last weekend dropped them to 4-7 and killed their postseason chances, but Dan Mullen, who’s built his tenure in Starkville around this rivalry, knows he can put a decidedly positive spin on an otherwise disastrous season by spoiling a postseason berth for The School Up North. The rivalry is once again a battle to avoid the SEC West cellar, but that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high.
Here are three things the Rebels need to do on Saturday in order to beat State and salvage their postseason.
Force State into passing situations
State’s offense does its damage on the ground, where the Bulldogs rank 10th nationally in rushing S&P+. Over 44 percent of their carries pick up at least 5 yards (18th best in the country), which is a terrifying stat for an Ole Miss defense that will be even thinner than usual at the second level thanks to the first-half targeting suspension of starting linebacker DeMarquis Gates. The heavy lifting is done by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who leads the team with 985 rushing yards and has run for over 100 yards in six of his 10 starts.
But Fitzgerald becomes significantly less effective when you force him to make plays with his arm. He blew up for 328 passing yards against Arkansas last week, but the bulk of that was picked up after the Hogs built a big lead and were content to sit back in coverage. Prior to that game, Fitzgerald hadn’t thrown for more than 214 yards against a Power 5 defense all season. His 55 percent completion rate and 124.95 passer rating both rank ninth among the 12 qualifying SEC quarterbacks.
“We have to win first down against a guy like [Fitzgerald],” Freeze said during his Monday press conference. “I think that’s a critical stat to follow in this game, being able to win that down and get them into third-and-long.”
Indeed, State becomes a very different offense when forced into passing situations.
|Mississippi State national rank|
|S&P+||Success rate||Sack rate|
|Passing downs are defined as 2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, or 4th-and-5 or more|
Get Shea Patterson back into a rhythm
Mississippi State’s defense is bad in general, but it’s particularly putrid against the pass—the Bulldogs rank 118th in pass defense S&P+ and have allowed more passing plays of 20-plus yards than all but five of the other 127 teams in the FBS. The Rebs should have plenty of opportunities for big plays through the air, but in order to capitalize, they’ll need their young QB to look more like the phenom in College Station and less like the freshman in Nashville.
That starts by catching the damn ball. Freeze estimated that Ole Miss had upwards of 10 drops against Vandy, which was a major reason why Patterson’s completion percentage dipped to 47.6. Freeze suggested the frigid temperatures in Nashville had an effect, so perhaps it’s good news that it’s supposed to be 61 degrees and sunny for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff.
Regardless of the weather, Patterson can help himself by being a more patient scrambler. Like many inexperienced, mobile quarterbacks, Shea has been far too eager to lean on his athleticism and bail out of the pocket. Freeze said Patterson “definitely got out of the pocket at times the other night where he didn’t have to,” noting that his young passer was “anxious.”
State’s defense ranks 103rd in adjusted sack rate, meaning that even behind a banged up O-line, Patterson should have time to make plays downfield if he can remain patient.
Cash in on scoring opportunities
“Defensively, [Mississippi State’s] given up yards and points, as have we, and we’ve got to be sure that we’re scoring touchdowns in the red zone when we get those opportunities,” Freeze said earlier this week, “because it seems, as you watch them and you watch us, that it could easily be who scores the most touchdowns.”
The latter part of that Faulknerian sentence is worthy of an eye roll, but I think what Freeze actually meant is that the game will be decided by who scores touchdowns in the red zone instead of kicking field goals. Sure, that could be listed as a key to any football game ever, but it’s especially significant in this one given both teams’ struggles to finish drives.
Ole Miss and State rank 52nd and 99th, respectively, in points per trip inside an opponent’s 40-yard line. The Rebs have been worse in recent games than their above-average ranking suggests—in the two outings since Chad Kelly went down, Ole Miss has found the end zone on just five of its 15 trips inside the 40 and hasn’t scored at all on six of those. The good news for the offenses is that the defenses have been even worse in that category: Ole Miss is 92nd and State is 105th.
If the Rebels can’t do a better job of cashing in on scoring opportunities, a long offseason clouded by impending NCAA punishment will get that much longer.
For the next few months, we are creating #Strangewiches, unexpectedly delicious sandwiches that embody the spirit and culture of your favorite college town that you can't find on a menu anywhere! For the University of Mississippi, our friends at SB Nation and Eater helped select the best ingredients to create the BEST, and most strange, #Strangewich for your tailgate in Oxford. Ingredients below!
Ole Miss [Mudpie Ice Cream Sandwich: chocolate ice cream, chocolate cookies, fudge vanilla whipped sweetened mayo]