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Scottie Phillips has been vital to Ole Miss’ offense. He’s questionable vs. Vanderbilt.

An ankle injury has the Rebel running back’s status for Vandy—and more importantly, State—up in the air.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the aerial star power on Ole Miss’ offense—Jordan Ta’amu, A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and, before his injury, D.K. Metcalf—you could mount a strong argument that a lightly-recruited running back in his first year out of JUCO has been the Rebels’ most important player this season. Scottie Phillips, who’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry and leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns, has provided critical offensive balance while transforming the Rebels’ ground attack.

Which is why his potential absence against Vanderbilt is such a big deal. Head coach Matt Luke said Monday that Phillips, who sprained his ankle against Texas A&M last weekend, is questionable heading into Saturday’s game in Nashville.

“I don’t know if he’s going to be back or not,” Luke told reporters. “He’ll keep pushing. There’s still some swelling in there as of this morning but we’ll keep pushing and try to have him ready to go.”

The Ole Miss offense wasn’t the same after Phillips limped off in the first quarter against A&M, his ankle having twisted at a cringeworthy angle underneath a defender. The Rebels scored touchdowns on consecutive drives in the second quarter to build a 14-7 lead, but those were fueled by pass plays of 23, 44, 39 and 12 yards. When the big passes dried up after halftime, Phillips wasn’t around to provide the five and six-yard gains that typically keep his offense on track.

Here’s the list of Ole Miss’ second-half runs:

  • Isaiah Woullard for 14 yards
  • Woullard for 3 yards
  • Woullard for 9 yards
  • Woullard -2 yards
  • Woullard -5 yards
  • Eric Swinney for 2 yards
  • Jason Pellerin for 3 yards
  • Ta’amu run for 4 yards
  • Woullard frun for 7 yards

That adds up to a whopping 35 yards, with only three of those carries going for five or more yards. With Ole Miss stuck in neutral, A&M sped by with a 24-3 run to close the game.

Phillips made a made a name for himself early in the season by ripping off long touchdown runs, but it’s what he’s done between the highlight clips that’s been so meaningful for the Ole Miss offense. He’s gained at least five yards on 53 percent of his 192 carries this season, keeping Ta’amu out of long-yardage situations and forcing defenses to respect the run. Thanks in large part to Phillips’ consistency, the Rebels rank sixth nationally in offensive efficiency.

Woullard, who averaged 4.0 yards per carry as the primary ball carrier against A&M, will handle the bulk of the running if Phillips can’t go against Vandy, but there’s not much behind him. Swinney doesn’t seem to have ever fully recovered from a pair of serious injuries suffered early in his career—his lone carry against A&M was just his 11th of 2018. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo said that Armani Linton, a running back who moved to defensive back midseason because of injuries in the secondary, has jumped back to offense to pad the body count.

The good news for Ole Miss is that whoever is carrying the rock on Saturday will be doing so against one of the worst run defenses in the country. Vandy is allowing 4.8 yards per carry and ranks 109th in rushing S&P+. Nearly 55 percent of opponent carries go for at least five yards (125th in the country) compared to less than 15 percent that get stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (121st). If the Rebels can stay in front of the sticks, Ta’amu could feast against a secondary that’s given up big plays.

The Egg Bowl will be a very different story. A Thanksgiving Day matchup will leave Phillips with a short recovery week between Vandy and Mississippi State, which boasts one of the country’s best defenses. State is particularly tough against the pass (fifth nationally in passing defense S&P+) which could limit Ta’amu and put pressure on the run game to keep the offense on pace. The Rebels certainly don’t want to face third-and-longs—State’s talented secondary and disruptive front have teamed up for the second best third-and-long success rate in the country.

Phillips’ health is critical for any hopes of an Egg Bowl upset in Oxford.