The Rebels’ matchup with cross-division rival Vanderbilt does not bring many headlines for either side. The moral of the story is that Ole Miss is trying to collect wins at the end of the season. Dashed bowl game hopes have removed any pressure for the Rebels to reach six wins, but the importance of this game lies in Ole Miss’ need to end the three-game losing skid that has taken the team from 5-2 to 5-5.
With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Ole Miss football has become exactly what everyone thought they would be this year — an offense loaded with talent that runs an up-tempo style and struggles to score against top-tier challengers and a defense that, no matter what logo is on the helmet of the opponent, will likely allow 500 yards. Very rarely, if at all, has good defense aligned with good offense, resulting in the Rebels’ 5-5 record.
Coming out with a win against Vanderbilt is not guaranteed. The Commodores come into the game with a 4-6 record, needing to win its final two games to earn a bowl bid. Both teams have just one SEC win through 10 games, but to Vanderbilt’s credit, they played a close game against No. 3 Notre Dame early in the season.
“(Vanderbilt is a) tough place to play. I have a lot of respect for Coach Mason (and) what they’ve been able to do,” head coach Matt Luke said.
Last weekend, the Ole Miss offense once again failed to live up to its billing against SEC competition. After the defense scored to give the Rebels a seven-point lead early in the third quarter, the offense became a no-show, forcing the defense to be on the field for long periods at a time. This led to a tired group that was no match for Trayveon Williams and the A&M ground game in the second half.
The Vanderbilt offense is similar to the Aggies’ in that it runs through the backfield. The star of the Commodores offense, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, has 849 yards rushing on the season, averaging 7.5 yards-per-carry and scoring nine touchdowns on the season. Although rarely used in the passing game, Vaughn has caught 9 passes for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns on the year.
“(Vanderbilt’s) running back is a very good player, (they have a) senior quarterback, they can get their tight ends involved in it because they’re so good in the run game,” Luke said.
If Vanderbilt relies heavily on the running game, play action passing could render the Ole Miss defense utterly useless. Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur does not boast a stat line for the record books, but he’s efficient and perfectly capable of performing well against Ole Miss. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley were both able to turn around their down years against Ole Miss, and Shurmur could be the next in line.
“If we get a turnover, we need to take it and go score,” Luke said.
With Vanderbilt likely to slow down the game by keeping the Ole Miss offense on the sideline, offensive coordinator Phil Longo needs to take advantage of every scoring opportunity. Red zone inefficiency and having to settle for field goals is not the recipe for winning games when the defense gives up points the way it does.
“If we have the ball in the red zone with a chance to go up 10, we need to take care of the ball and go up 10 into halftime,” Luke said. “There’s a lot of things we can do better to help us win these last two games.”
Jordan Ta’amu is one of the top passers in college football this season. He is second nationally in passing yards at 3,374 yards for the season, only trailing Mississippi native Gardner Minshew II at Washington State. However, Ta’amu has fewer passing attempts than Minshew has completions, clearly illustrating the big-play ability of Ta’amu and the NWO.
The arsenal of weapons at Ta’amu’s disposal is a clear strength for Ole Miss. Six pass catchers have over 200 passing yards on the season, with A.J. Brown going over 1,000 yards on the season, passing Shay Hodge for the program-leading career receiving yard total.
D.K. Metcalf’s absence in the offense has been noticeable; however, freshman Elijah Moore has stepped up to the plate. Moore averages 12 yards-per-catch, with 2 touchdowns on the season. After Braylon Sanders’ early season prominence, Moore has become the clear-cut third option in the Rebel passing game.
Ole Miss has just two games remaining, with the highly-anticipated Egg Bowl falling on Thanksgiving Day. A win over Vanderbilt will be key to building some momentum going into the matchup with Mississippi State.