Cutler Klein, sports editor at the Vanderbilt Hustler, joins The Daily Mississippian sports editor Grayson Weir to discuss Saturday’s homecoming matchup between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Cutler Klein: Vanderbilt got a glimpse of Shea Patterson last season in relief of Chad Kelly in the Commodores’ late-season win over Ole Miss. How has he improved since being thrust into the starter’s job?
Grayson Weir: Shea is still young. He’s still growing, and he’s still learning, especially when it comes to throwing the ball away and not trying to do too much. That being said, between when he took over for Chad in last year’s matchup and today, there’s a colossal difference in his maturity. His talent, athleticism and ability to extend plays have always been there, but his confidence has been growing. With big games, big losses and the constant spotlight under his belt, this is Shea’s team, and no one is going to play harder.
CK: Ole Miss has gone through some tumultuous times this summer and won’t be able to make a postseason bowl this season. How has all of the drama affected the team as well as the attitudes in Oxford surrounding the team?
GW: The drama undoubtedly has affected the guys in the locker room and on staff, but it’s in the past. The players have rallied around one another, and the sense of family is prevalent more than ever. At this point, the focus is on football and righting the ship.
CK: Ralph Webb showed some flashes last week of what he can do, despite another low rushing performance. Is Ole Miss preparing to stop the run like the first six of Vanderbilt’s opponents?
GW: Is Ole Miss preparing to stop the run this week? Absolutely. Does it mean it will? Gosh, I hope so. Beyond the big fellas up front, Ole Miss’ ability to tackle ball carriers has been atrocious. Coming out of every weekend, the focus, defensively, has been on wrapping up. And every week, nothing changes. The Rebels’ horrendous run defense (and defense in general) is a glaring concern coming in to Saturday. All we can do is hope is that Webb, who is a powerful back with a high ceiling, has an OK game, not a great one.
CK: Vanderbilt’s run defense has not looked pretty in the last few weeks. Ole Miss is at the bottom of the SEC in rushing offense. Will it attempt to revive the run game against a defense that has had trouble stopping the run in recent weeks?
GW: Yes. While offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s offense is highly pass-oriented, he will once again attempt to establish a run game. The key word is attempt, as handing the ball off has been rendered virtually ineffective so far. We have seen Jordan Wilkins break a few long runs, and we would love to see more of that, especially against a defense that has allowed teams to run all over it — but the majority of the game will be on Patterson and his arm.
CK: After two weeks of double-digit losses, are the Rebels going to be playing this game with a chip on their shoulder?
GW: Undoubtedly. The last two weeks have been ugly, and even the guys admitted that, to a certain degree, their hearts weren’t in it. Between the three straight Ls and last year’s road loss to the Commodores, saying this game means a lot is an understatement.
CK: What is your prediction for the game and why?
GW: Over the last few weeks, I have had to tiptoe around with cupcake predictions that hinted the games were not going in favor of the Rebels. This week, I have a good feeling. Ole Miss is returning home in need of a victory — and with a desire to avenge the 2016 loss, which would have sent the Rebels to a bowl game. If Shea comes out and does his thing, the offense finds somewhat of a balance with the run and the defense does just enough, the Rebels should put a close, structurally unsound game in the win column.
Grayson Weir: Both teams are looking for their first SEC victory this season, and after Vanderbilt’s loss to No. 5 Georgia last weekend, the Commodore faithful were calling for an offensive overhaul, starting with coordinator Andy Ludwig’s firing. What does this game mean for Ludwig, head coach Derek Mason and the guys in the locker room?
Cutler Klein: Well, I’m not sure if Ludwig is on the hot seat quite yet. There have been some glaring issues with the play-calling and structure of the offense, but it’s a far cry from calls for his job. This game is a great chance for Vanderbilt to show that it is not a bad football team. This is a chance to show that while maybe it is not ready to compete with the SEC elites, it is still pretty good. It’s not a “make or break” game by any means, but it’s a good chance to see what Vanderbilt is really made of.
GW: Vanderbilt averaged 54 rushing yards in its past four games. How will running back Ralph Webb factor into a game against Ole Miss’ 122nd-ranked rushing defense? Is the ground game something that Ludwig will try to establish early on?
CK: Put it this way: If there’s any opportunity this season to get Vanderbilt’s run game going, it’s this game. Having faced some extremely tough run defenses over the last couple of weeks, this is a chance for Webb to get the monkey off his back, although he is not to blame for the run game’s struggles, by any means. The offensive line has yet to get much push on any defense, and the play calls have not worked to their advantage at all. This is a chance for the run game to really take off for the first time.
GW: Having thrown 12 touchdowns and only one interception to this point, quarterback Kyle Shurmur is far and wide the Commodores’ most valuable player. Outside of Shurmur, who is a guy to watch who could step up and be a difference maker?
CK: Look to the opposite side of the ball for Oren Burks to be a leader this Saturday. Over the last few weeks, the defense has not lived up to the hype, and many have seen a strange leadership gap on the team. They did lose two leaders to the NFL this season in Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler, but Burks should be able to step up. In trying times, it’s the leadership that needs to step up, and Burks is a guy that everybody respects and looks up to. Look for Burks to lead by example this weekend and have himself a strong game.
GW: Alabama, Georgia and Florida bulldozed Vanderbilt’s defense for 379 rushing yards per game. The Ole Miss offense has averaged less than 100 yards rushing on the year, but has put up 1792 yards passing. How has the defense been preparing for the SEC-leading air attack? Is a relatively untested secondary up to the task of shutting down the Nasty Wideouts?
CK: Until the Georgia game, Vanderbilt’s secondary had been quite strong. Ryan White and the leaders of that secondary have been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak stretch. They’ve managed to step up and stop some talented quarterbacks and force the opponent to win the game on the ground (which they have been able to do). Now, the spotlight will be on the secondary for the first time in a few weeks, and it’s time for it to be the strong point of the defense. If Ole Miss is forced to run the ball more often than it would like to, then the secondary has done its job well.
GW: Ole Miss’ defense enters Saturday giving up an average of 37 points per game, many of which come on or off of big plays. How can a Vanderbilt offense, which isn’t necessarily built for big comebacks or to “bomb away,” keep up with the (hopefully) prolific, high-scoring Rebels?
CK: It hasn’t shown it this year, but there is a real chance this game turns into an Air Raid shootout. Kyle Shurmur has not shied away from the deep ball, and his receivers are talented enough to make plays downfield. Caleb Scott’s hands are like glue, and guys like Kalija Lipscomb and Trent Sherfield have game-breaking speed. Of course, Vanderbilt will want to get the run game going, but if it comes down to it, it can hang around in a passing shootout.
GW: What do you think Vanderbilt needs to do to leave Oxford with a victory? Prediction?
CK: If Vanderbilt is to win this game, it needs to finish off its drives on offense with points, give Ralph Webb space to run and make sure it can contain a shifty Shea Patterson. Overall, Vanderbilt should have enough to overpower this Ole Miss Air Raid offense, much like it did last year, and should take this one 27-21.