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Ole Miss’ uptempo offense is fast. Sometimes it should slow down.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo would be well-served to go to the ground and slow it down in some situations.

After drawing skepticism from Ole Miss fans during a rough start to the 2017 season, first-year offensive coordinator Phil Longo had begun to change some minds on a sunny Oxford afternoon in late October. His quick-strike Rebels offense had used touchdown drives of 31, 65, 71, and 70 seconds to build a sizable first-half lead over Arkansas—all with first-time SEC starter Jordan Ta’amu at quarterback. The new coordinator had come to Oxford to redefine tempo and he was finally making his case.

Up 31-14, Ole Miss took possession with 2:40 remaining in the half. Having already run the ball with great success, they were in prime position to move downfield and burn enough clock to keep Arkansas from having time to answer.

Instead, Longo’s offense passed on six of seven plays, ending the drive with an interception just 90 seconds after it began. Arkansas scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 10 points and went on to win the game.

Hindsight is 20/20 here, but Longo’s decision to push the pace at a time when it didn’t make total sense contributed to a blown lead. There are times when the Rebels’ high-octane passing attack could be well-served by motoring down.

Maybe Longo doesn’t need to push the pace all the time.

The up-tempo offense isn’t going away, nor should it. Leveraging pace is Longo’s identity and forte, so a major departure from that would stymie Ole Miss’ ability to put points on the board. Going fast reveals a defense’s structural weaknesses and limits its ability to make personnel changes.

Still, there are times when slowing the attack down has its merits. If you’re leading by multiple possessions, it may be in your best interest to slow the game down as a way of limiting the opponents’ opportunities to mount a comeback. That makes plenty of sense, assuming you’re able to still move the ball on a defense that has more time to get set.

We rarely saw Longo make that adjustment. The table below shows the average amount of time elapsed between snaps in different game situations. Whether Ole Miss was trailing by a lot or clinging to a one-score lead, there was little change in Longo’s tempo.

Tempo by Situation: Ole Miss Offense, 2017

Possessions Winning/Losing By Avg. # of Plays Avg. Time of Possession (Seconds) Time between Plays
Possessions Winning/Losing By Avg. # of Plays Avg. Time of Possession (Seconds) Time between Plays
Down 3+ 4.5 111 24.7
Down 2 6.9 123 17.8
Down 1 6.6 112 19.9
Tied 5.2 98 19.1
Up 1 5 113 22.5
Up 2 4 83 20.8
Up 3+ 5.6 103 18.5
Garbage time is excluded.

There’s not much of a relationship between how much Ole Miss led/trailed by and the speed at which they dictated things, and the offense played at an even quicker pace when leading big than when the game was closer.

There is merit to the idea of pushing the pace regardless of the score, but lightning-quick drives aren’t necessarily sustainable through four quarters. To think that extending a lead with more rapid scores rather than slowing the game down is a simple choice ignores the fact that defenses can tighten up over the course of a game.

Another option is to just run the ball more.

Looking at things from a tempo perspective is just one angle, and maybe it’s just an unavoidable truth that this offense has to operate at a certain speed to be effective at all. To get another idea of how the group’s tendencies shifted depending on the score, here’s how often the Rebels ran the ball by situation.

Unsurprisingly, Longo leaned into that pass-happy identity even more when losing, but we didn’t see the opposite take place when Ole Miss built a lead.

Run Rate by Situation: Ole Miss Offense, 2017

Possessions Winning/Losing By Run Frequency Running Success Rate Yards per Carry
Possessions Winning/Losing By Run Frequency Running Success Rate Yards per Carry
Down 3+ 37.90% 42.90% 4.1
Down 2 31.20% 60% 8.2
Down 1 25% 0% 3.5
Tied 42.20% 50% 7.2
Up 1 44.30% 37.90% 5
Up 2 38.60% 44.40% 7.2
Up 3+ 34.20% 69.20% 6

Despite the fact that Longo’s offense was more efficient running than passing last season, they were somehow more committed to the ground game when the game was close than when up by a score or two. For a point of reference, FBS teams on average ran the ball 55 percent of the time when leading by three or more possessions in 2017.

Going conservative to maintain a lead can make for a pretty predictable offense, and the Rebels shouldn’t shy away from throwing on early downs when it makes sense. Still, Ole Miss ran the ball just 45 percent of the time on standard downs last season (128th nationally), so even if they did shift to the ground a bit more, they’d still keep defenses guessing.

Smart defenses excel at forcing offenses into the read that they prefer, and maybe that’s why Ole Miss passed the ball so often when leading big. The thing is, defenses can’t really afford to load up the box when Longo deploys formations with three or four receivers. There should be ample opportunity and room to run.

If the run game remains solid, this is an easy way to tweak the offensive blueprint and minimize risk. That’s a sizable question mark, though, and this team’s personnel makeup suggests that going to the air will be an imperative at times.

Ole Miss could benefit from keeping its defense off the field.

The downsides of the hurry-up, no-huddle in Oxford were apparent at times during the Freeze era, but similar to now, were largely accepted as a necessity to compete in the SEC. One glaring difference between then and now is that those teams from a few years ago could trust the defense to hunker down when the offense experienced a drought. That’s... not the case nowadays.

For the most part, the 2014-15 defenses excelled at making up for any offensive sputtering by surviving long drives and allowing opposing teams to maintain possession for very little reward. The 2018 team won’t have that fallback option, and they can’t afford to suffer too many quick three-and-outs because of a mediocre defense that can’t hold a lead.

It’s not exactly fair that this prolific of an offense has to consider their shaky counterpart when making decisions, but it’s the reality they’re dealing with. Whether it’s by simply piling up more points or just sitting on the ball, it’ll be mostly up to the offense to hang on to leads.