A week after moving the ball well in the first half, then running into a wall of ineptitude in the second half, the Rebels look to rebound against Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3). The Commodores have been a thorn in the side of the Rebels lately, winning five of the last seven meetings between the two. While the series may not meet the traditional mark of a rivalry, the two have a long history, meeting 86 times in 118 years. The I-40 series was even worse for Ole Miss when it began in 1894, with the Dores winning the first 19 meetings between the two until a win in 1939. It was not until 1948 that a meeting was in Oxford, with the rest predominately in Nashville and subsequently a few matchups in Memphis. The swan song for the red and blue came during 1953-2004 where they were 41-6-1 against the black and gold. If they are to relive the days of ole, they will have to win the battle between their offense and the No. 19 defense in the country.
If the Rebels are going to be able to put up points on the Commodores, it likely won’t be through the air. Coach James Franklin’s pass defense ranks 2nd in the SEC and 3rd nationally, allowing just 5.5 yards per attempt and four touchdowns this season. For the sake of playing the devil’s advocate, Vanderbilt has not faced many big-arm quarterbacks. Their SEC opponents have included South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Florida’s Jeff Driskel, two run-first signal callers, Kentucky and Missouri, both using their backups, and Auburn, an anemic offense all-around. The only competent one that they have faced has been Aaron Murray, who was 18-24 for 250 yards with two touchdowns in a 48-3 Bulldog beatdown.
With all that said, 3rd in the country is nothing to scoff at. Safeties Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladner rarely blitz or help in the run, leaving them to make plays over the top. Both players are sure tacklers, each recording over 50 each. The cornerbacks, Andre Hal and Trey Wilson make plays on the ball. While neither is going to hop in front and pick the ball off, a combined zero interceptions between the two, they are both good at wrestling the ball out or knocking it down. Wilson did have two of the team’s five interceptions against the Rebels last year, but that was during the forgettable Zach Stoudt era.
It will be hard for Bo Wallace to make plays on this secondary, and he will need the reemergence of Donte Moncrief. The Biletnikoff watchlist receiver has gone relatively quit since erupting onto the 2012 scene. A big play from Moncrief would be monumental as the sophomore had a 47-yard touchdown last season in Nashville. Wallace has a big arm, and can put the velocity needed to get past the defender. He was able to do that in the first half against Georgia, passing for close to 200 yards. What he cannot afford to do is put too much air on a weak-balanced throw and allow the secondary to make plays on him.
The consistent improvement of Korvic Neat and Vincent Sanders will be key in this game as well. Neat was shifty and exhibited great hands last week and Sanders has steadily become one of Wallace’s favorite targets. While Brunetti can make dynamic plays on his feet, letting him throw the ball this game would be unsuccessful against Vanderbilt as he does not have the strength to get the ball there in time.
What sets up the good secondary is Vandy’s elite pass rush. They have 65 tackles for loss this season, 8.0 coming from linebackers Chase Garnham and Karl Butler. Bringing those two into the backfield leaves the middle of the field open for slants, a pivotal aspect of Saturday’s game. While Garnham is the better pass rusher, Butler is better against the run, catching up to a lot of speedy backs on the perimeter. The guards better be prepared to meet Garnham on passing downs, because he’ll be coming.
The defensive line has been another area of excellence for Franklin. The four down-linemen have combined for 20.0 TFL and have been a consistent push into the backfield this season. Particularly up the middle with Jared Morse and Rob Lohr, the linebackers are given a lot of room to get to the ball carrier.
While they excel against the pass, the defense is pedestrian against the run. Vanderbilt ranks 68th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 4.4 YPC and 13 touchdowns on the ground. The Florida and South Carolina ground games can make anyone’s defense look poor, the trouble is, so can Ole Miss. Jeff Scott, Randall Mackey, Wallace, and Brunetti all have the abilities to make big plays. The backs will have to run away from Butler’s side and the wide receivers will have to hold their blocks, something they did well in the first half against Georgia. If Wallace can step out of the pass rush and find room, he can turn designed pass plays into 20-yard gains on the ground.
I would not be surprised if there was another stretch run to Mackey that he tries to throw the ball. Hugh Freeze is going to run the ball a lot and try to confuse a disciplined Vandy defense. While the athleticism is in the Rebel favor, the discipline by Vanderbilt is unmatched by anyone in the league, sans Alabama. Ole Miss cannot afford to run, run, pass and find themselves in long 3rd downs against this defense, because they won’t win. It would be the short passes and the long runs that would make Freeze’s bunch feel like it’s 1993 again, a year that the Rebels won by 42 points.
Topics: Andre Hal, Barry Brunetti, Bo Wallace, Chase Garnham, Connor Shaw, Donte Moncrief, Hugh Freeze, James Franklin, Jared Morse, Javon Marshall, Jeff Driskel, Jeff Scott, Karl Butler, Kenny Ladner, Korvic Neat, Ole Miss Football, Randall Mackey, Rob Lohr, Sec Football, Trey Wilson, Vanderbilt Football, Vincent Sanders, Zach Stoudt