While new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo entered spring practice overlooking a bevy of talented weapons at his disposal, he still faced the job of installing a new system in a short amount of time. On top of that was dealing with the enigma of why this group underperformed the previous year. Pinpointing the underlying problems behind the offense’s occasional collapses is hardly a simple task, as they included an inconsistent run game, ball control, finishing drives, and other curse-inducing maladies.
It may surprise some to find out that Ole Miss ranked 13th nationally in Offensive S&P+ in 2016, but their high rating got a generous bump from the quality of defenses they faced. The reality is that the opponent-adjusted numbers didn’t translate to more wins, especially when they weren’t complemented with a competent unit on the other side of the ball.
When the offense was clicking, it was devastating, which explained the early surges over even the stoutest of defenses. What tended to follow those impressive early leads was a seemingly inevitable loss of control of the game, an issue that wasn’t solely the fault of Dave Wommack’s group.
The hope is that by implementing his air raid system over the past few weeks, Phil Longo has begun to address what plagued this unit last season. For the Rebels to experience any kind of offensive resurgence in 2017, or a season worth remembering, that kind of evaluation is imperative.
Offensive success begins with restoring balance.
The Rebels’ inability to establish a threat on the ground manifested itself in a number of ways. The ultimate price was that they constantly struggled to stay on schedule, as they often did little with their early-down opportunities. Ole Miss took shots through the air a bit too often on first and second down, and they were typically unable to recover when those passes didn’t connect.
The offense ranked 107th in terms of how often they ran on standard downs, with a run rate of just 51 percent in these situations. Longo has iterated time and again that he plans to emphasize a downhill running game, so hopefully the ground game becomes a more steady option on early downs going forward.
Establishing offensive balance will go a long way in forcing defenses to play honest. When the Rebels’ offense found rhythm on the ground in the back half of the 2015 season, defenses were faced with the decision of whether to load the box with more bodies or stay back in preparation for a pass. Because the run was far from threatening in 2016, that leverage disappeared. If Longo can find a way to bring it back, Shea Patterson and the passing game become that much more effective.
Blend tempo with ball control and finish drives.
What typically comes to mind when one hears “ball control” is an unwatchable style of play that prioritizes time of possession and setting manageable yardage targets each down. That’s really no longer the case in this age of football, and it’s entirely possible for one to run tempo and bleed out the opponent at the same time.
At Sam Houston State, Longo’s offenses were just as fast as what Hugh Freeze is used to running, averaging less than 21 seconds of game clock between plays over the last two years. It’s tempting to think that’s just part of a pass-heavy offense that stops the clock regularly, but that figure included a 2015 season in which Longo ran the ball 57 percent of the time.
Freeze won’t ask Longo to regularly churn out eight-minute drives, but he will ask his new coordinator to avoid the frequent three-and-outs that caused so many problems for the defense last year. Opposing offenses normally averaged 2.4 points per drive against Ole Miss in 2016, but that jumped up to 2.9 when they had the ball following a Rebel three-and-out. Reaching the sticks early in drives will not only bode well for the rest of that drive, but offers value in giving the Ole Miss defense more rest.
Leaving points on the field became an increasingly apparent issue as the season progressed. They ranked 75th with 4.5 points per scoring opportunity on the season, but that shrank to 2.9 over the last three games with Patterson at the helm. It was perhaps most glaring when they nearly matched Mississippi State in efficiency, yet the score still read 55-20.
Enough has been said about Freeze’s play calling in the red zone, and there’s plenty of reason to think Longo will bring in enough refreshing ideas to excel when it matters most.
Don’t fall apart in the second half.
The nationally televised collapses against Florida State and Alabama served as a talking point for many early on, but Ole Miss’ inability to finish games was a season-long problem. Here are the splits between halves:
|Stat||First Half||Second Half|
|Stat||First Half||Second Half|
|Yards per play||8.3||5.8|
Nearly every major offensive stat worsened over time for Ole Miss, and listing off all of them would be exhausting for everyone. What deserves perhaps the most attention is that 16 of the Rebels’ 19 turnovers occurred in the second half.
The main culprit may be what was already a thin pass protection that got worn out as the game progressed, giving up 10 more sacks in second halves than it did in the first. This season, more than any other time in Freeze’s tenure, a lack of bodies in the trenches will no longer be a valid excuse.
It very well may be the case that defenses simply caught on to what the offense was doing after using the first half as an evaluation period. While it remains to be seen whether Longo’s schematic changes will yield significant gains on the field, it can’t be overstated how valuable it is to have a coach who is coming in with his own system and instinctive play calling.