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Ole Miss RB Scottie Phillips could be the key to beating South Carolina

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The Rebels should be able to move the ball if Phillips can keep them out of of obvious passings situations.

Southern Illinois v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s no coincidence that Scottie Phillips’ worst rushing outing as a Rebel came on a day when Ole Miss’ offense couldn’t finish drives. Six times the Rebels’ had first downs inside the Auburn 40-yard line—six times they failed to find the end zone. Jordan Ta’amu and the passing game ripped up and down the field for most of the afternoon but sputtered when the field shrank near the goal line. With Phillips—who averaged a season-low 3.5 yards per carry against the Tigers’ formidable front—unable to move the offense forward on the ground, Ole Miss was repeatedly forced to settle for field goal attempts as Auburn raced past them in the second half for a 31-16 win.

As the Rebels emerge from the other side of a bye week to face South Carolina, Phillips may be more important than ever.

Though the Gamecocks have been successful at limiting big plays, they’ve routinely allowed offenses to move the ball methodically on the ground, ranking 114th nationally in Bill Connelly’s rushing marginal efficiency metric. Over 52 percent of opponents’ carries have picked up at least five yards, the 10th worst rate among the 130 FBS teams.

That’s an alluring matchup for Phillips, who’s gained at least five yards on 53.6 percent of his totes while posting a marginal efficiency of 4.7 percent (meaning he picks up successful yardage nearly five percent more often than what’s expected of him based on down, distance and yard-line).

Even with the relatively paltry outing against Auburn, Phillips remains one of just two SEC players to average over six yard per carry on at least 100 attempts. He’s rocketed Ole Miss into the top five nationally in rushing S&P+ (up 36 spots over last season) while averaging just shy of 100 rushing yards per game.

His ability to keep Ole Miss ahead of the chains could be critical against the Gamecocks, who become a much better defense when they force offenses into obvious passing situations. Consider that South Carolina’s defensive S&P+ rank goes from 85th nationally on standard downs all the way up to sixth on passing downs*. Or that their 112th-ranked standard down sack rate climbs into the top 40 on passing downs.

*Passing downs are defined as second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more.

Phillips is known for breaking off big plays (he leads the SEC with nine runs of at least 20 yards), but it’ll be his ability to keep his offense on schedule with five and six yards gains that could be the difference on Saturday. If he does that, Ta’amu and the high-flying passing attack stand a much better chance of finding the end zone.