On the surface, Florida State’s 22-point comeback against Ole Miss on Monday night was shocking. It’s understandable how an objective viewer may have seen Ole Miss put up four quick touchdowns while doing a decent job of preventing the Noles from finishing drives and wonder why some similar version of that flow of events wouldn’t continue for the remainder of the game. However, when the trailing team is the one with considerably more talent across a wider range of positions, some return to expected normalcy is pretty much destined to happen.
As evidenced by the first half, offensive innovation (and sometimes downright weirdness) has a way of preceding defensive talent at times. In the right set of circumstances, the team that takes the initial lead can either continue to build on its margin or at the very least sit on it for some time.
These were not the right circumstances.
Explosiveness vs. efficiency
Any real, concrete comparison of Chad Kelly to Bo Wallace is flawed in a lot of ways, but Monday’s high ceiling, dreadfully low floor offense induced a similar level of anxiety to that of Dr. Bo’s in 2014. When clicking, Ole Miss was able to rely on a string of explosive plays that the FSU secondary struggled to keep up with.
|First half||Second half|
|Completions of 15+ yards||6||3|
|Completions of 25+ yards||4||1|
|Overall yards per pass||9.4||6.13|
An all-or-nothing offense is a joy to watch when it’s working, but once the secondary adjusts, you have to have a stable backup plan that puts you in a position to gain the chunk of yards you need on each down. While 6.13 yards per pass isn’t an awful figure, that number relies on the fact that 4 out of Kelly’s 7 second-half completions were for big gains. That means the overwhelming majority of his other throws during that time barely moved the ball, and the offense began basically every set of downs off schedule because of it.
|Ole Miss||Florida State|
|Yards per play||6.1||5.6|
|Average starting field position||23.4||36.1|
Note that the figures above aren’t for just the first half – it’s the entire game. Despite everything that went wrong after halftime, Ole Miss was still the better overall offense on a yards-per-play basis. This is precisely why that stat alone doesn’t fully convey a team’s overall efficiency, in that this number is boosted by Ole Miss’s quick first half scoring drives. When it came to metrics that reflect a team’s play-by-play stability, FSU was the better team. Judging by success rate, they stayed on schedule more often, even considering they had a number of unsuccessful first two downs followed by big plays on third-and-long.
In addition, the Noles enjoyed much better field position, which can be attributed to the consecutive three-and-outs and turnovers gifted from the Rebels. Much has been said about how the defense’s woes were likely compounded simply from having to return to the field every 30-45 seconds of game clock, but this gap in field position also made a difference.
RUN THE DANG BALL (if you have a deep, healthy stable of bodies to hand said ball to)
|First half||Second half|
|Yards per rush||6.4||2|
|Gains of 10+ yards||6||0|
You would think that if you’re trying to maintain a lead and you have a quarterback prone to turnovers, you may consider relying more on the run game to manufacture longer drives and achieve a balanced, less predictable attack. However, lack of depth in the backfield meant it wasn’t that simple of a decision Monday night. Not only did Jordan Wilkins’ ineligibility and Eric Swinney’s season-ending injury complicate things, but even Akeem Judd had to receive medical attention at one point.
As far as viable options at running back, Ole Miss was left with a hobbled Judd, Eugene Brazley, and D’Vaughn Pennamon, who many believed would redshirt this year. So it’s understandable that Freeze and Dan Werner would want to avoid putting too physical of a toll on an already thin backfield. Provided no more disastrous injuries occur, I’d like to believe that Ole Miss maintains a competent running game. Considering the Rebels finished 23rd in rushing S&P in 2015 behind a constantly shuffling offensive line, it’s not out of the question that the running game progresses. The narrative that Ole Miss can’t consistently run the ball has been largely true the past few years, but a spread offense that constantly leaves opposing defenses with conflicting decisions about where to commit resources should be fully capable of finding running lanes.
If I hadn’t watched the game at all, and all I saw was the final score with no knowledge of the order and manner that points were put up, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. It’s more the way the game unraveled that left every Ole Miss fan with a familiar feeling of despair, self-loathing, and general awfulness. It’s become a cliché to tweet something along the lines of, "If you’re an Ole Miss fan, you’re only comfortable with a lead when the clock reads 0:00," but it’s true, and a lot of it is quantifiable.
But there’s enough evidence to believe the season opener, particularly the second half, was a complete aberration from what’s to be expected from the offense, especially considering the quality of defense faced. As much as Chad Kelly and Ole Miss as a whole are characterized as volatile and unstable on a play-by-play basis, the offense ranked second in success rate and first on standard downs in the country in 2015, consistently getting needed yards before going for the big play. There’s a good bit of stability hidden behind all the madness that we tend to hang on to in our minds, and there’s plenty of reason that only continues in 2016.