Hugh Freeze didn’t burn Shea Patterson’s redshirt for … whatever that was.
With bowl eligibility still up in the air, Ole Miss came crashing back to reality in Nashville on Saturday, losing 38-17 to Vanderbilt only a week after upsetting No. 8 Texas A&M. And the Rebels’ biggest problems in this game — defense and maintaining possession — were a microcosm of what’s ailed them all year long.
The Commodores entered this game with the nation’s seventh-worst offense by way of yardage. What did they do? Pick up 481 total yards, their most against any SEC foe this year, while Kyle Shurmur recorded a season-high 16 yards per completion. Vandy reeled off at least one play of 20-plus yards on all five of its touchdown drives. Three were Shurmur passes.
Coordinator Dave Wommack’s defense put the Ole “Miss” in “missed tackles.” Ralph Webb repeatedly ran unhindered into the heart of his unit. Piling onto this mess was the loss of standout pass rusher DeMarquis Gates, who was ejected for targeting and will miss the first half of the Egg Bowl.
None of this is new to Ole Miss fans, who’ve been forced to watch these issues recur on a weekly basis.
Yes, the loss of cornerback Ken Webster in the season opener hurt. Sure, starting two freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary will always come with growing pains. And that Nkemdiche guy was pretty good for them last year, too. I get all of that.
But even Freeze pointed out a hard truth after last week’s victory in College Station — and I’m paraphrasing here: You’d expect your younger players to start improving by this point. On Saturday, there wasn’t much evidence of that. Vandy runs a basic, predictable offense that’s heavy on using Webb; Ole Miss somehow got caught in the world’s most obvious trap.
Wommack, now 60 years old, has presided over a couple of excellent Rebels defenses. But this season has been an unmitigated disaster. Defensive play has done in the Rebels too often in 2016; they are 0-6 when allowing 30-plus points, and 5-0 when they keep opponents under that mark.
Round 2 of the Shea Patterson experience wasn’t quite as magical as his debut performance. The touted freshman finished 20 of 42 for 222 yards and 2 touchdowns. But the day could have gone much better for him were it not for several drops and constant Vandy pressure.
There was surprisingly little commitment to the ground game against a beatable Commodores front seven. Derek Mason’s squad has been susceptible to the run at times, but Akeem Judd only got 10 carries (63 yards). The end result: Ole Miss held the ball for only 25 minutes, 11 seconds and forced Patterson into multiple third-and-long situations.
So how does Freeze right the ship in these problem areas? How does he make sure his program doesn’t waste precious quarterback talent like Patterson and Chad Kelly before him?
Unfortunately, these aren’t issues fixed in 2016. The Rebels need a serious culture change on defense, which will take time, and that starts with Wommack. Right now, they’re playing with the mentality of a finesse spread offense. The “Landsharks” feel like a bygone era, even though it was only two years ago that they fielded the nation’s top scoring defense.
A repeat of this week’s mess next Saturday means the Rebels won’t make a bowl game. A repeat of this year’s mess in 2017 could mean Freeze will be looking for a new defensive coordinator.