It might surprise you to see Ole Miss ranked last in the SEC in total defense. Two years ago, the Rebels allowed the same amount of yards per game as Alabama.
The reason for the drop? Well, for starters, there’s no Robert Nkemdiche. The former No. 1 overall recruit moved on and was taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Ole Miss also lost four of its top six tacklers from a year ago, not including Nkemdiche. And it didn’t help when top cornerback Kendarius Webster was lost for the season in the first game.
But there’s another stat that might correlate to why the once renowned Landshark defense has struggled so much this year: time of possession.
Ole Miss also ranks last in the SEC in time of possession, averaging less than 24 minutes per game. It’s not that the offense isn’t moving the ball. The Rebels rank in the top half of the conference in total yards and points per game. It’s that they’re moving the ball too fast sometimes.
Against Arkansas last Saturday, the Ole Miss offense put up over 400 yards and 30 points, but they were doubled up by the Razorbacks in time of possession and ultimately lost the game 34-30.
“Sometimes a three-and-out is just as fast as when the offense scores,” Ole Miss defensive end John Youngblood said. “Some of the drives that they score on, it takes 30, 40, 50 seconds and they’re in the end zone. But it is tough because at the end of the game, I looked up at the clock at Arkansas and they had 40 minutes [of] time of possession to our 20. At the end of the day, we are playing a lot more football than the other team’s defense.”
Tempo has been a staple for Ole Miss, though, at least since Hugh Freeze has been there. And using that same blueprint, the Rebels have won 19 games the last two seasons and played in back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games. They’re the only SEC team to have beaten Alabama since 2013, and they’ve done it twice.
“That’s who we’ve been ever since we’ve been here,” Freeze said. “And we’ve won a lot of football games doing that. We think about [how it affects the defense] quite frequently, to be honest. But when we tend to slow down, we’re not near as effective offensively, it seems. I think you’ve got to play to what your strengths are.”
Maybe so, but watching Arkansas march down the field Saturday on a 10-play, 56-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes, it was clear that the Ole Miss defense was gassed. Can you blame them?
The Rebels will face another physical test this Saturday when they travel to LSU. Word is that Leonard Fournette, the SEC’s top running back, will make his return. What happens if the Ole Miss defense has to play 40 minutes again, and they’re on the field at the end of the game needing to make a stop on somebody like Fournette or fellow running back Derrius Guice?
“I think you just have to manage that game, in particular, and see -- is our advantage to go really fast on offense, to go our medium tempo or to go our slowest?” Freeze said. “We’ll have to see how the game is going to manage that.”
Ole Miss isn’t going to change its identity. It shouldn’t have to. But Saturday, maybe the offense can go medium tempo at times and give the defense a breather. They’re probably going to need it when the fourth quarter rolls around and the game is on the line.