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The Ole Miss Preview: A Stats Study

After years of shootouts, expect defense to carry the day in Oxford.

NCAA Football: Portland State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Week 2, and we’re already in “game of the year” territory.

It’s not too early to say that the loser of Saturday’s game in Oxford is probably not going to a bowl. The losing coach might even begin to feel a warming seat: fans these days aren’t as patient as they used to be.

Ole Miss’ position seems to be a little more dire. Unlike Chad Morris, coach Matt Luke inherited a fairly stable program and has gone just 11-14 (4-12 in SEC games). The Rebels lost their last four games in 2018, ran off both coordinators, and then saw a new-look offense fall flat in a 15-10 loss to historic regional “rival” Memphis. If the Rebels lose at home on Saturday, Luke’s best shot to be back in 2020 is for Rich Rodriguez’s offense to steadily improve over the rest of the season so he can play the rebuilding card.

Arkansas’ offense has been flat for its last few games as well. For the Hog offense, this game represents a chance to get back on track after a second-half injury to Ty Storey in last year’s game basically derailed a surging offense.

Ole Miss’ new look offense (and defense)

Matt Luke enters his third season (second as full-time head coach) at a bit of a crossroads. Sanctions related to recruiting violations have expired, but those scholarship limitations can take several years to recover from. Ole Miss returns just three offensive starters, and must replace QB Jordan Ta’amu and WRs A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf. That’s a tall task.

Coaching changes won’t make that any easier. Luke getting rid of his defensive coordinator after the Rebels finished 14th in the SEC in Rush Defense PAN and 12th in Pass Defense PAN makes sense. And new DC Mike McIntyre is a really good hire. Assuming the Ole Miss staff survives this season, McIntyre might actually build a decent defense in Oxford. But there’s still a long way to go.

The bizarre decision-making came on offense. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo left for North Carolina (Ole Miss fans mostly wanted him gone) and was replaced by Rich Rodriguez. I get Rebel fans’ complaints: Longo’s offenses had gaudy numbers against bad defenses (uh, Arkansas) and were often shut down by good defenses (a combined 10 points against Alabama over the last two years), which placed a pretty hard cap on Ole Miss’ potential record in the brutal SEC West. But RichRod? The last time RichRod was considered an offensive guru, Gus Malzahn was copying his run game concepts while serving as offensive coordinator at Tulsa. While his final Arizona offense (led by Khalil Tate) did manage to finish 10th in the FBS in Rush PAN, none of his other run games cracked the top-30 and his best passing attack finished 35th in Pass PAN. And switching from a pass-heavy attack to a more run-oriented offense seems like Ole Miss is giving away one of the things that has made it unique in recent years.

A Closer Look: Memphis 15, Ole Miss 10

(Confused about the stats? Check out the glossary here.)

This season has started out as worst-case scenario for Rebel fans. The offense, their calling card in the post-Freeze era, was absolutely anemic against a bad defense, putting up just 173 yards and 10 points in an upset loss.

When Ole Miss has the ball

Memphis debuted a new defensive coordinator for the game, but their 2018 defense was nothing special, ranking 84th in Rush Defense PAN and 87th in Pass Defense PAN, placing them on the lower end but not quite the bottom of the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers had an extremely active defensive line, ranking 26th in stuff rate, 30th in line-yards per rush, and 35th in sack rate (all numbers opponent-adjusted). They could be victimized by more athletic offenses and competent passing attacks: they ranked 73rd in bonus-yards per explosive run, 77th in ANY/A, and 101st in marginal third down defense.

With those numbers in mind, here’s how the game played out:

Feel free to look over all these numbers, but we’re going to analyze this from the bottom up. First, we see that Ole Miss was horrific on third down, finishing with -26% marginal third down conversions (1 of 10 for 10% when they should have hit 36%). The worst team in the FBS last year, Akron, was -9.2% for the year. Ole Miss also gained just 21% of available yards, a pitiful figure worse than Portland State’s against Arkansas. This number was inflated by a late-game safety from the Ole Miss 2… when you have 98 available yards in front of you and you go backwards into the end zone, that’s going to hurt your AY figures.

Glancing over the run/pass numbers, we see that Ole Miss had a pitiful 24% success rate when passing (Arkansas was at 36% against Portland State), but the Rebels were able to hit a big pass play: a 36-yard completion that aided a field goal drive in the third quarter and drove up the Gini coefficient. The rushing success rate was slightly better (40%) but one-third of Ole Miss’ rushing attempts went for zero yards or a loss. The Rebels finished with an awful 2.03 line-yards per rush despite a few explosive runs.

These numbers suggest that Ole Miss’ passing game is terrible, but the offensive line is also bad, because all run-block-related stats (stuff rate, line-yards, and explosive run rate) are significantly worse than what they should be against a Group of 5 defense.

This was the first play of the game, and it set the tone. In addition to the read man, two more Memphis defensive linemen easily got through the Rebel run-block attempts to drop RB Scottie Phillips for a two-yard loss.

RichRod is trying to beef up the Ole Miss run game, and it showed up in his playcalling on Saturday:

The Rebs weren’t terrible on standard downs thanks to some explosive plays (0.51 Gini), but they weren’t as good as Memphis and they were pretty run-heavy (72%). Passing downs proved to be a problem, as Ole Miss QB Matt Corral (9 of 19, 93 yards, interception) and a brand-new group of receivers had some issues. Their passing downs Gini is zero because they literally only had one successful passing downs play (out of 15).

Corral’s accuracy was iffy:

He was also frequently late with the ball…

…and was frequently reckless, demonstrated by this ill-advised can of corn:

What these last two plays have in common is that a wide receiver managed to get some separation at the line of scrimmage, but Corral threw the ball without any apparent awareness of the safeties. This suggests that Arkansas’ safeties are going to play a major role. I expect Ole Miss, which now has almost no faith in its passing game, will be very run-heavy, so stopping the run will be priority number one. But the Hogs will have to carry over their excellent third down and passing downs defense from the Portland State game into this one.

When Arkansas has the ball

If you look back at the stats report above, you’ll notice that Ole Miss actually did a nice job containing the Memphis passing attack. Quarterback Brady White (23 of 31, 172 yards, interception) wasn’t asked to do much thanks to a strong Tiger ground attack, but Memphis was poor in passing downs. Memphis lost excellent running back Darrell Henderson (1,909 yards, 8.9!!! per carry) to the NFL after he helped the Tigers rank 3rd in the FBS in Rush PAN a season ago, but the Tigers still managed to grind out 192 yards on the ground, +6.9 Rush EVA, and +0.18 EVA per Rush.

Memphis pulled this off by keeping the Rebels out of the backfield. Just 4 of Memphis’ 50 rushing attempts were stuffed (8%) and the Tigers picked up a healthy 3.5 line-yards per rush. They got very little explosiveness (3.9 bonus yards per explosive run, 0.32 rushing Gini), similar to what we saw from Arkansas against Portland State, and that kept a game statistically dominated by Memphis from turning into a bigger victory.

The performance of Arkansas’ offensive line is going to be key. They’ll be facing an Ole Miss defense that doesn’t seem like it’s going to get many TFLs or sacks, so keeping the stuff rate low and the line yards high is really going to determine how well Arkansas does. When you feed Rakeem Boyd, explosive runs will come, but the Hogs have to emphasize staying on schedule with the run game.

Keys to the game

  1. Be the first to establish the run. I don’t think either team trusts its passing game, so I’m guessing this game isn’t going to look like the shootouts of years past. Instead, expect a low-scoring trench fight. Both teams will likely be very run-heavy on standard downs, and the first one to establish the run and get its leverage rate high will probably be in the driver’s seat. Offensively, that means keeping the Rebels out of the backfield, so keep and eye on line-yards and stuff rate. Defensively, Ole Miss wants to create big runs, so active linebackers and safety help against the run will be big.
  2. Keep Corral uncomfortable. Matt Corral had a rough outing against Ole Miss and didn’t look comfortable at all in a new offensive scheme. I think John Chavis will send a lot of blitzers after him. He’s mobile, though, so the Hogs have to be better in contain than they were against Portland State. Film study suggests that Hog safeties Kamren Curl and Joe Foucha have a big opportunity to follow up on their good games in Week 1.
  3. Special returns. Both Treylon Burks and De’Vion Warren flashed some speed on punt and kick returns, but neither was quite able to bust a big run (Warren had just one return chance). This game could flip on a play like that.