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What we know, kinda know, and don’t know: Service academy edition

Rushing for a quarter of a million yards like we’re in Annapolis/Colorado Springs or on the banks of the Hudson. Nbd.

Auburn v Ole Miss Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Two weeks after Kentucky climbed back into the game and were down by one score in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss faced a similar scenario with Auburn last Saturday.

The Tigers trailed 21-0 early in the second quarter, and all signs were pointing to Bryan Harsin being given his buyout check before he got to the locker room. The boys reportedly were buzzin’.

As we know, Auburn eventually found themselves down by one score with nine minutes to play in the fourth. Unlike the Kentucky game, Ole Miss opted out of a one-score Hold On To Your Butts™ situation when Quinshon Judkins’ 46-yard touchdown run with six minutes left effectively ending the game, as Auburn was forced to run two-minute offense with an offense that cannot run two-minute offense.

The Ole Miss offense had the ball late with a chance to knock Auburn out, and the Rebels did exactly that. Even more encouraging, after Auburn’s two-minute offense took nearly four (4) minutes to go 22 yards before throwing an interception on fourth down, the offense made the one first down it needed and never gave the ball back to Auburn.

Growth! Closing games out! Less stress! We love to see it more and more.

What We Know

Ole Miss wins games right-handed, left-handed, and AMPHIBIOUSLY

On their way to a 3-0 SEC start, they’ve won three different ways:

  • A grind it out affair against a Kentucky team very interested in moving in slow motion
  • Jaxson Dart spinning it for 448 yards against Vanderbilt (though they did average 5.1 yards/carry)
  • The aforementioned service academy tribute of 69 carries (obligatory: NICE) for 448 yards against Auburn

And in those three games, the defense played well enough against Kentucky, was outstanding in the second half against Vanderbilt, and was pretty not great from the second quarter on against Auburn.

As we move into the meat grinder portion of the schedule, Ole Miss has not shown any signs of being a one-dimensional offensive team, which hopefully will serve them well as the questions asked of them from now on will increase in difficulty. If they have more answers, they should be in a better position to solve various things thrown at them by defenses who will have a lot more film with which to work.

The lingering question (perhaps this is in the wrong section) is will they be able to throw, if needed, with consistency against teams that can match their receivers’ athleticism. That could be an issue at some point.

Wrinkles AHOY

On Ole Miss’s second touchdown, which was a 23-yard touchdown pass to Zach Evans, Lane Kiffin gave Auburn a look that anyone who has watched the Rebels would’ve seen multiple times, even going back to last year.

If you recall last season when every receiver imaginable got hurt, Kiffin started introducing more quarterback runs with Matt Corral out of necessity. Whether in the form of a draw or power run, the offense leaned on these runs at times because Corral was such a great runner and options were limited.

These same runs continued this season because Dart is also a good runner, and opposing defenses spend most of their attention on Zach Evans and Quinshon Judkins, giving Ole Miss a chance to take advantage of that attention. As a result, Dart is the third leading rusher on the team (397 yards), while averaging 7 yards/carry (which includes sack yardage).

On Evans’ touchdown, the play initially looks every bit of a quarterback power run that Ole Miss has run multiple times, with the right tackle blocking down, the left guard pulling, the tight end coming across the formation to block, and Evans seemingly going to be another blocker.

HOWEVER, things are not what they seem. While Dart still has the option to run, the wrinkle is Evans not blocking but releasing into the space behind the Auburn defenders who are seeing nothing but run.

Dart reads the edge defender and realizes he just has to flip the ball to Evans for the easiest touchdown pass of the season so far.

About .1 seconds after this, Kiffin knows it’s a touchdown.

Obviously, that’s just one example, but it gives you an idea of how aware Kiffin and the offensive staff are about their tendencies and how to break those with maximum effect.

Second-half offense: COOKIN’

After going two games (Tulsa and Kentucky) without scoring a second-half touchdown, here are Ole Miss’ second-half drives against Vanderbilt and Auburn:

  • 7 plays, 83 yards, touchdown (Vandy)
  • 1 play, 6 yards, touchdown (Vandy)
  • 1 play, 71 yards, touchdown (Vandy)
  • 7 plays, 57 yards, INT (Vandy)
  • 1 play, 72 yards, touchdown (Vandy)
  • 8 plays, 44 yards, touchdown (Vandy)
  • 13 plays, 73 yards, field goal (Auburn)
  • 9 plays, 54 yards, touchdown (Auburn)
  • 15 plays, 52 yards, field goal (Auburn)
  • 8 plays, 75 yards, touchdown (Auburn)
  • 5 plays, 26 yards, end of game (Auburn)

If you can’t find the strength to do the math, that’s 11 possessions with 7 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 turnover, and 1 kneeling it out. So of the 10 possessions where they were trying to score, they have one possession where they didn’t.

Scoring on 90 percent of second-half possession is likely not sustainable, but Kiffin and company are pulling all of the right levers over the last two games.

What We Kinda Know

Defense settling into who they are

After an absurd start to the season, the defense has experienced regression in terms of points allowed and sustained drives, which should be expected given the quality of opposing offenses increasing. However, what’s somewhat alarming is that they gave up 34 points to an Auburn offense that, against FBS opponents, has scored 24, 12, 17, 17, and 10 points.

Not only that, they were repeatedly gashed by Auburn’s running game (301 yards allowed). They gave up runs of 26, 48, 50, 22, and 50 yards. Huge NOT GREAT, BOB energy.

I noted against Kentucky that they were pushed around at times, but this was more than being pushed around. They either repeatedly missed their run fits or got out-schemed and Tank Bigsby, a great running back, made them pay.

Despite this regression, they’re still 26th in yards per play allowed and 13th in points per play, which are stats that show they limit explosive plays. They’re also 19th in sack percentage and 13th in takeaways, which means they create a lot of havoc and negative plays.

The point I’m getting at here (FINALLY) is that we could be seeing a clearer picture of who the defense is. They’re not going to dominate, but they may force offenses to put together long drives (not what offenses like!) and create enough chaos, especially in favorable down and distances for a defense.

Again, that’s what we kinda know. We’ll learn more about them this week, as they face an LSU offense that bounces between BUTT and NOT BAD.

Of note, if the Ole Miss offense holds steady, they don’t need to be great.

Explosive play advantage

In his Monday press conference, Kiffin noted that, as a team, Ole Miss is around +46 in explosive plays* versus their opponents. That means Ole Miss has had 46 more explosive plays than they’ve given up, which is, uh, pretty good.

*Generally, an explosive play is defined as any run of 12 or more yards and any pass that gains 20 or more yards.

Explosive plays on offense mean shorter drives and fewer chances drives get bogged down due to penalties and negative plays or end in turnovers. Not giving them up on defense means you make offenses put together 10-12 consecutive plays where they don’t screw up enough to end the drive.

Obviously, this stat involves the weaker part of the schedule, so maybe that pace is will tail off, but that’s a big advantage for Ole Miss right now. I, for one, would be super cool with this advantage continuing.

Goal line BEEF

On Zach Evans’ rushing touchdown early in the second quarter, Ole Miss rolled out the beefiest formation since Hugh Freeze was doing something dumb with Jeremy Liggins at quarterback.

Six offensive lineman and Baby SWAG attacking the Auburn front. COUNT ‘EM UP.

Mason Brooks came in at right tackle, and starting right tackle Micah Pettus moved over to the left side to be a second left tackle, with Baby SWAG lining up just off his left hip.

I don’t recall Ole Miss using this alignment at any point this season, but it could be another option when they feel confident enough to line up and run people over when the field shrinks.

Does this do anything to alleviate concerns about the same five offensive linemen playing the entire game? It does not!

But, as I said a few weeks ago, I’m not sure any kind of a rotation is realistic at this point. We’re certainly going to need guys who are not regularly playing to step in at some point, but we don’t know how that scene will go.

What We Don’t Know

Dayton Wade, a sustainable producer

First, if you haven’t listened to or watched any of his interviews, you should at least start with this one. His personality comes through, and you won’t find someone more enjoyable to root for.

After having five touches for 68 total yards on the season coming into the Auburn game, he had six for 107 yards and one touchdown on Saturday. Was that a sign of things to come or something Ole Miss saw they could do against Auburn’s defense?

First real road game response

I have been to Tiger Stadium four times in the course of my Ole Miss experience. In those four trips, I have seen Ole Miss win four times and, not just win, but win fairly comfortably in the end.

In each of those trips, there was a point when, even though Ole Miss was in control, [insert LSU at home shenanigans] started to happen. Those previous Ole Miss teams were able to ride out those temporary storms and finish the games in a relative stress-free manner.

For a good chunk of the Ole Miss roster, including Jaxson Dart*, this will be their first taste of a hyper-aggressive road environment. Whether they’ve got it rolling or it’s a tight game, at some point, the momentum is going to turn against them.

Will they buckle under that pressure or respond with plays that have LSU fans sad-eating delicious tailgate gumbo or jambalaya around 6:30?

*In my opinion, the toughest environment Dart has played in was at Washington State in 2021. Not an easy place to play, but not nearly the animal that Tiger Stadium is.