Maybe trying to savor a win over Vanderbilt is sad in its own way, but that 57-35 rout is what fans needed to stay invested in what’s been a rough 2017.
Ole Miss went into the game riding a three-game losing streak, having done nothing impressive against actual Power Five teams and getting outscored 110-26 in SEC play. On top of ending that trend, Saturday’s victory marked the first time we’ve truly seen what we wanted this team’s identity to be play out on the field.
The Rebels were finally clicking on both sides of the ball, racking up 603 yards while preventing the Commodores from going into ball-control mode. They showed why they rank fourth nationally in explosiveness, and while the defense was far from perfect, they created plenty of chances for a potent offense to do damage.
It’s naive to expect the win to mark the beginning of some incredible stretch, but it’s also worth reflecting on anything remotely fun this year, regardless of the opponent.
The defense was disruptive enough to make an impact.
It can’t be stressed enough how low the expectations have been for Wesley McGriff’s unit. Their best approach was always going to be a hyper-aggressive one, based on trying to force turnovers and get the ball back to their better counterpart, even if it meant giving up big plays on occasion.
That vision finally came to fruition, as the Landsharks picked up two fumbles and a pick, gifting Shea Patterson with an average starting field position at their 40-yard line. The offense was great, but they wouldn’t have reached 57 points without a shortened field.
After a relatively quiet first five games, Marquis Haynes was the main agent of chaos, forcing both fumbles and tallying 3.5 sacks. The defense posted a havoc rate of 23.4 percent Saturday, compared to their underwhelming mark of 15.1 percent on the year (84th nationally).
Giving up 35 points to a Kyle Shurmur-led team isn’t something to be proud of, but the opportunities the defense created for Patterson and friends helped put this game out of reach.
The running game was the backbone of the offense against Vandy.
It’s no secret that the forte of Phil Longo’s group is through the air, but they were having trouble capitalizing on their strengths without forcing defenses to respect the run. Against Vandy, they did far more than just use the ground game to open things up for the receivers, running the ball 39 times for a season-high 267 yards.
Jordan Wilkins had a few impressive bursts against Alabama and Auburn, but those games obviously got out of hand before he could do much more. He’d always been known for his downhill style and big-play potential, but was inconsistent when it came to actually getting to the second level. His inability to slam through changed Saturday, as he gained five or more yards on 44 percent of his carries (his season average is 35). Wilkins has averaged 8.5 yards per carry against the last three opponents, and two of those defenses are actually good.
While Shea Patterson didn’t do a ton of damage on the ground, it was imperative to get him involved for the zone read to be worth anything. Watching him open himself up to more hits may make fans nervous, but it’s a facet of the offense that’s been missed.
As it turns out, balance on offense makes a big difference.
The effects of a resurgent ground game were felt everywhere. Shea Patterson overcame a subpar completion rate of 59 percent by making it count when he did connect, averaging over 15 yards per completion. He completed passes of 16 or more yards seven different times, the most he’s had over the last four games.
A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge have established themselves as the team’s best receivers, in that order, leading the regular rotation in yards per target and catch, as well as success rate. It’s not particularly close. They kept it up against the Commodore secondary by turning 15 targets into nearly 250 yards and four touchdowns.
It’s hilarious to think that, despite the fact that this was their highest-scoring game yet, they didn’t have to be amazing efficiency-wise (46 percent success rate). They showed that, when they can stress all points of a defense, getting the ball to capable weapons in space is inevitable, as four of their touchdowns came from 29 or more yards out.
LSU is a vastly different opponent, and it’s hard to see this brief bit of success fully transferring over. The win over Vandy could mean absolutely nothing long-term, but with few concrete objectives left to play for this year, it’s impressive that this team can still put together a performance like this at all.