Let me start this film breakdown by saying this: I am an alumnus of the University of Florida. I was quite pleased with the result I saw Saturday, but, man, did I not see it coming.
I was one of the people who truly thought Ole Miss was the real deal. I thought the win over Alabama was justified, even if it took a whacky play to propel the Rebels’ momentum. The Rebels have one of the most aggressive defensive units in all of college football, and came to Gainesville, Fla., leading the nation in turnovers forced (10). When you combine that with Florida’s shaky offensive line and first-year starting quarterback, most figured that would’ve played right into Ole Miss’ favor.
Well, it didn’t. Not only could Ole Miss not capitalize on quarterback pressure like it did versus Alabama, it forced zero turnovers against the Gators.
So what happened? How did a team leading the contest in total yardage, lack of penalties and time of possession in the fourth quarter lose in such a blowout? How did the SEC’s top statistical offense come to a screeching halt? Was Ole Miss’ true form revealed by the Gators, or was Florida simply that dominant?
Let’s start with how the Rebels defense wasn’t up to their ball-hawking selves.
Josh Norris of Rotoworld has a saying when evaluating NFL draft prospects and that is “disruption is production.” What that saying boils down to is that if you can get pressure on the quarterback, even if you can’t wrap up a sack, blowing up the pocket should do enough to affect plays in a defense’s favor. For Ole Miss, that didn’t happen versus Florida. They were able to get pressure, but it never forced those costly turnovers we’ve seen from the Rebels’ defense all year.
The play above is Florida’s first touchdown, but when you look at it from a Rebels’ perspective, what more could they do? Nkemdiche gets to Grier and starts to bring him down, only to have the quarterback throw the ball off his back foot. That’s exactly what you want if you’re the defensive coordinator.
Instead, from a different angle, we see the two crossing players take the attention away from the safeties and neither are in position by the time the ball is thrown. That’s an INT that should’ve been made by someone. Wasted disruption there.
Ole Miss also fell into the trap too many teams in college football do when they try to play with or against the clock, and that is prevent defense.
The Rebels’ defense is about bull rushing players up front (big strong defensive lineman, not finesse speed players), press corners on the outside and safety Trae Elston as a deep zone ball hawk. However, in the last two minutes of the first half, they abandoned that and played off coverage.
Notice how the corners are playing far off in order to assure they’re not beat deep. This strategy requires a quarterback to complete at least six or eight passes to get within scoring range as opposed to one or two big throws. Those odds sound nice on paper, but Grier picked the off coverage a part with five throws of less than five yards and still managed to march the ball down and score. Ole Miss’ defense isn’t built for that kind of zone coverage. It was doomed to fail when called.
Absence of Tony Conner
My final takeaway from why Ole Miss’ defense couldn’t capitalize against Florida like they did versus Alabama was the absence of starting safety Tony Conner.
I’d bet my bottom dollar on this touchdown play that Conner would’ve been matched up with Callaway once he moved in motion. Conner would’ve had the speed and the quickness to play closer to the line of scrimmage against Callaway, most likely negating that run after the catch. If Conner is in the game there, the Rebels might’ve only given up three.
This wasn’t the only play, either. Florida continued to pick on Conner’s substitutes for a good portion of the night, and the drop in experience was noticeable (e.g. Brandon Powell’s touchdown off a missed tackle). The slot and tight end options were more reliable for UF because Conner wasn’t present.
Flipping the O-Line narrative
Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly didn’t have too bad of a night when you look at the stat sheet, throwing for more than 200 yards and getting a late-game score in there. But if you watched the game, you know that those yards and that touchdown didn’t mean much. For a team that was No. 1 in the nation in yards per completion, Ole Miss looked pedestrian in their passing attack seeing that average fall from 17.2 on the season to 10.0 against Florida.
The main reason for this was consistent pressure from Florida’s front four. Going into the game, the narrative was that the Gators’ offensive line would be the ones with trouble on their hands, but they only gave up one sack and created zero turnovers against themselves. Ole Miss’s big men, however, gave up four sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
There’s nothing fancy about Florida’s pass rush here, in fact, they really didn’t need the extra man. Gators defensive tackle Caleb Brantley blew up that play so fast Kelly never had a chance. What we saw early on was that Alabama’s defensive line was strong on gap control, but Florida’s front four proved to be a whole new level of competition when getting to the passer.
What Florida does best on the defensive line is they rotate their players inside and out. Most team, even Ole Miss, likes to do that to some degree. But it’s how the Gators used those players that really gave that Rebels O-Line some trouble.
Here we see Florida give Ole Miss a taste of their own medicine, the delayed blitz. Gators defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard drops back as if he’s in coverage, waits for the offensive line to commit to the double team, and blows right by them. This was the kind of offensive miscue that left Ole Miss facing an average of 11.5 yards to go on third down in the first half — as you’d expect, they weren’t very successful when attempting to convert those third-and-longs.
There are a few key moments in every game that standout among the rest. It could be an amazing throw and catch that breaks off for a touchdown or an extra effort play that gains a first down when the defense thought they had them stopped. Other times, and more common, it comes down to plays that don’t show up on the stats sheet. A mis-timed route, an over throw on a wide open player, or even something as costly as a turnover.
For Ole Miss, that was their story. It seemed as though any time the Rebels started to gain offensive momentum, a big sack or a mental mistake would set them back. Here’s an example of a play that stopped a six-play drive cold in its tracks.
Points off turnovers was the stat that dominated the story line of this game. Florida had 24, Ole Miss had zero. Many of Ole Miss’ turnovers came in their own territory, and with a short field to go, Florida coach Jim McElwain imposed his will on the Rebels tired, frustrated defense.
So was Ole Miss really debunked on Saturday? No, not really. The Rebels still moved the ball relatively well considering how much their offensive line was struggling. The bottom line is teams can’t lose points-off-turnovers battle that bad and expect to keep it anywhere close. Give the Gators their credit, they capitalized on almost every one of their momentum opportunities. The tape doesn’t tell us the Rebels were frauds; But it does seem to suggest the Gators defense is the best they’ll face all season. Ole Miss still has some work to do if they want to reach the SEC Championship Game, but they’re not as far off as you’d think.