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Ole Miss’ offense can wreck you in many ways from a single formation

This one formation helped the Rebels rally past Arkansas.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

When D.K. Metcalf left in the first quarter of last Saturday’s game against Arkansas with a neck injury, my first thought fell somewhere between WELP and I’m going off the grid for the next six months.

An Ole Miss offense that was dominated by superior Alabama and LSU defenses will now have to find its footing against SEC competition without its leader in receiving touchdowns and a guy who averaged 21.9 yards per catch. That’s nearly TWENTY-TWO yards per catch, fam.

One might say I was not brimming with confidence during the Arkansas game. However, much to my and everyone’s surprise, the Rebels trashed Arkansas repeatedly with a short-to-intermediate passing game and a running game that included Jordan Ta’amu in large quantities.

Given that Ole Miss’ top two vertical threats are now DaMarkus Lodge and Braylon Sanders, two guys who are capable of hitting a big play down the field but lack the size for the 50-50 balls, the formula used against the Razorbacks may be what we see the rest of the season. To illustrate what I’m talking about, we’re bringing back a lean version of the film review.

Specifically, we’re going to look at Ole Miss’ 3x1 set, which means three receivers to one side of the field and a solo receiver to the other.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo lined up in this formation on 26 of its 73 plays and used it to produce 315 of its 611 total yards and three touchdowns. YOU GOTTA LIKE THOSE NUMBERS, BOB.

I know this may be disorienting for those who think a playbook isn’t a REAL MAN’S PLAYBOOK unless it has a minimum of 150 plays, but the rules of football do allow you to run the same plays over and over again, especially when they’re not being stopped. And, in another twist, you are allowed to run them out of the same formation to either side of the field with the same personnel group.

With that in mind, the first play I want to observe in this formation is one of the passing variety, meaning there is no run option involved. Ole Miss ran this play eight times, with Ta’amu going 7-for-8 for 195 yards and a TD.

Here’s what it looks like:

This is the same formation and play used on Octavious Cooley’s long touchdown in the third quarter. The two outside receivers will either go vertical or run a hitch, but the meat of the action occurs with the two inside receivers.

Dawson Knox, lined up in the slot, runs a whip route, which means he releases inside, slams on the breaks, and goes back outside. A.J. Brown runs a crossing-ish route right behind him (Brown also lined up in the slot and showcased his version of the whip route on several plays).

Per standard operating procedures in the Air Raid, the first read for a quarterback is usually the receiver going vertical. If he’s even with or behind a lone defensive back, they’re taught to throw it up. In this case, not an option for Ta’amu.

However, in the middle of the field, Ole Miss has created conflict between the two Arkansas defenders. One defender sees Knox, but knows Brown is right behind him, while the other sees Knox breaking open and hesitates for a beat, giving Brown more than enough room to make the catch.

Two plays later, Ole Miss runs the same daggum thing. This time they run it to the short side of the field, making it LIKE ANOTHER PLAY.

The same routes are run, though some space is chased due to defensive alignment.

Oh yes, chasing space was employed, and you won’t believe it, but it looks a lot like the previous play! That’s because chasing space doesn’t mean people can do whatever they want, but it gives them freedom to adjust their release, breaks, and depth based on what the defense shows.

Because A.J. Brown just roasted them two plays ago, the Arkansas defenders are most interested in what he’s up to, meaning Dawson Knox is quite lonely.

Three defenders sell out on Brown, which means Knox needs one block and he’s chasing space with the ball in his hands.

Ole Miss also ran exceptionally well out of this formation. MWHAHAHAHA.

The Rebels attempted nine runs from the 3x1 set (Ta’amu had five, Scottie Phillips with four), which gained 79 yards and one touchdown.

Earlier in the game, Ole Miss had Braylon Sanders and DeMarkus Lodge in opposite positions on the outside, with Octavious Cooley and A.J. Brown inside.

Instead of letting Brown torment the defense, Longo calls Ta’amu’s number on a quarterback draw. Right guard Ben Brown and running back Isaiah Woullard were charged with leading the way. (On a side note, Woullard was spectacular at this all night.)

Finally, Ole Miss ran two types of receiver screens out of this formation: a true wide receiver screen to the outside receiver and a bubble screen to the middle receiver. Unfortunately, due to the heroes who normally post entire games on the line BEING LAZY AND INCONSIDERATE, I lack shots of those plays.

However, I can adapt, and give you an idea of what the idea looked like. Same formation, same personnel group.

The idea is the two inside receivers block down and give the outside receiver, who goes behind the line of scrimmage to catch the pass, room to maneuver.

Ole Miss ran a version of the true wide receiver screen/bubble six times, with Ta’amu going 6-for-6 for 41 yards, and he hit Lodge for a backside touchdown pass (away from the screening and such). The yardage may not seem like much, but those plays are essentially running plays, and last time I checked, over six yards a carry is just fine.

But wait! There’s more.

Phil Longo also threw in one wrinkle that I don’t think we’ve seen this year. Out of the very same set, the running back motions to Ta’amu’s left and all three receivers turn into blockers. All that’s required is Ta’amu hitting the RB in stride.

And success! Downfield blockers and a well placed throw. Who could ask for more?

Ole Miss is going to keep taking shots down the field, but perhaps those will be dialed back to some degree with Metcalf out. Even though Arkansas is a bad, bad defense, we have our first indication that Longo is successfully adjusting his attack.