As tempting as it may be to pretend the 55-20 blowout loss to Mississippi State never happened, Ole Miss’ Egg Bowl embarrassment carries too much weight to be ignored. It serves as both a reflection on the 2016 campaign as a whole and possibly an indication of what’s to come for the program.
The Rebels’ string of ugly midseason losses exposed issues that should have prompted adjustments from the coaching staff. Instead, the defense never made up for its inefficiencies, and the offense was unable to solve its red zone problems.
Having to constantly recalibrate after injuries certainly made things more difficult, but it became clear by season’s end that the team’s failures weren’t merely a byproduct of roster depletion. The issues that doomed Ole Miss against State should have been recognized and fixed (at least in part). They weren’t, and the Rebels will be sitting at home during bowl season because of it.
(NOTE: none of the stats in this post include garbage time, which began in the fourth quarter with State up by three scores.)
The defense continued to allow explosive plays.
While it would have been naive to think that the Rebels’ terrible run defense would suddenly stiffen in the Egg Bowl, there was a realistic model for defensive success that was founded on a bend-don’t-break approach. That glimmer of hope was murdered and dumped in the trunk of Joe Pesci’s car by the end of the first quarter.
State racked up 458 total yards before garbage time kicked in, and 308 of those yards came on explosive plays (explosive plays are defined here as runs of 15 or more yards, or passes of 20 or more yards). Rather than keeping the field in front of them and forcing State to put together long, mistake-free drives, the Rebels played close to the line and allowed themselves to be gashed. The Bulldogs averaged just 5.7 plays per touchdown drive, and three of their six touchdowns came from at least 24 yards out.
The majority of the damage was done via the run game—seven of State’s nine big plays were on the ground. Once Bulldog runners got past the defensive line, there was nobody to stop them. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald got to the second level on five of his eight carries—on those five opportunities, he gained an average of 34.6 yards. This wasn’t some anomaly for the Ole Miss defense, mind you—they gave up a mind-numbing 11 runs of 40 or more yards on the season. For comparison, the Rebels allowed only four such plays over the previous four seasons combined.
Once again, the offense struggled to finish drives.
An output of just 20 points is a bit shocking considering how well Ole Miss moved the ball, but it begins to make sense when you see just how awful they were at converting long drives into points.
The Rebels made it inside State’s 40-yard line on an incredible 70 percent of their drives (the national average is just 47 percent), yet only produced 20 points. Compare that to the Bulldogs—who scored a touchdown on all six of their trips inside the 40—and it becomes clear how this game got out of hand.
Having to settle for field goals deep in opponents’ territory is always frustrating, but coming away empty is even worse. Shea Patterson threw an interception in the end zone and the Rebels had turnovers on downs on State’s 30 and 18-yard line.
While it’s not fair to demand an offense to produce on all of its trips inside the 40, 2.9 points per scoring opportunity is unacceptable. That ineptitude had a lot to do with the Rebels getting themselves into obvious passing downs once they hit the red zone—three of their four first-down plays inside the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line gained nothing. Getting off schedule in the red zone exacerbates everything that’s inherently difficult about moving the ball against a compact defense. Compared to their overall success rate of 46 percent, the offense gained the yards they needed on just 20 percent of their red zone snaps.
(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.)
Hopefully these issues can be fixed in 2017.
Finishing drives and allowing explosive plays were by no means the only issues Ole Miss dealt with this season (see: an O-line that couldn’t protect and a coaching staff that couldn’t manage a balanced attack), but those were the ones most amplified in the Egg Bowl.
The good news is that a lot of these points of concern can be attributed to youth and inexperience. The safeties should get better at preventing big plays, the coaches have some time to figure out a more reliable linebacker rotation, and the offensive line could benefit in the long-term from having to shuffle so many pieces this year. It was an ugly season, but there are enough bright spots to give fans reason to expect an immediate rebound in 2017.