NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt defense’s mission for Saturday is clear: It must stop the run.
No. 9 Ole Miss comes to FirstBank Stadium sporting the nation’s fifth-best rushing attack at 261.8 yards per game, the best clip among all SEC teams ahead of the first weekend of October. The Rebels’ ability to run with multiple backs, with their quarterback and at a high tempo are all a concoction for a dangerous offensive system.
“One of the things that I’ve been impressed with is just the various ways in which they use to be affective and move the ball,” Vandy head coach Clark Lea said this week. “They will take what you give them. If they feel like the run game is there they are going to be committed to finding the yards and points through the run game.
“Obviously they have a good quarterback and explosive skill at the receiver position, too. They’re not afraid to put the ball in the air. They use that tempo to get you on your heels and a lot of times those chunk gains come after explosive sequences or sequences where they’re applying pressure with tempo. You have to dig in to your reserve at those moments and be in the right place at the right time defensively.”
Vanderbilt had been relatively solid against the run game through four games until it ran into the buzzsaw that is No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 24. The Crimson Tide totaled 228 yards on the ground and averaged 6.7 yards per game while totaling three rushing touchdowns in a 55-3 win over Vandy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
A silver lining for the Dores (3-2, 0-1 SEC) is they will have had two weeks to reassess what went wrong in that contest while trying to figure out the best way to slow down the Rebels.
“We definitely have to hone in, especially on tackling,” Vanderbilt senior linebacker Kane Patterson said. “I don’t think we’ve tackled great to this point and I think that got exposed at times versus Alabama. So it’s very important that we tackle, and then against a mobile quarterback just making sure to contain and collapse the pocket and the pass rush.”
Mississippi sophomore Jaxson Dart has taken over behind center for head coach Lane Kiffin and is the catalyst for making the Rebels move. His 241 rushing yards is third on the team while his 6.5 yards per carry the most among Rebels with at least 30 rushing attempts.
Running back Quinshon Judkins, a freshman, has already totaled 535 yards and six touchdowns while junior Zach Evans has nearly 400 yards on the ground to go along with five rushing scores.
Ole Miss comes to Nashville having run exactly 100 more rushing plays than passing calls. And it does so at a lightning-quick pace, ranking near the bottom of college football in time of possession at 25:19 per game.
“We’ve been working a lot on getting in shape. Just continuing to get in shape better and better,” Patterson said about battling that sort of tempo. “And just the way coach (Nick) Howell has everything set up during our scout periods, just making sure that he puts us under stress to be able to communicate fast and then just execute fast, too.”
Lea said one way to combat the Ole Miss rapidity is to rotate a healthy numbers of defenders in and out of the lineup. That’s something Vanderbilt has already done consistently this season, Lea said, but many of those defensive players tend to be on the younger and more inexperienced side of things. The second-year head coach added that the defensive staff will have to be intentional about whom is in the game, and when, to maximize results.
The Commodores will also have to be wary about Ole Miss attempting to go for a first down on fourth down. The Rebels (5-0, 1-0 SEC) led the nation in 2021 with 49 attempts, although they have only gone for it eight times through five games in 2022.
All of the aforementioned factors present a daunting challenge for the Vanderbilt defense. That unit can take some confidence away from the 2021 matchup in which Ole Miss was held to 154 yards on the ground.
But none of that matters going to Saturday’s affair, yet another tall order for the Commodores.
“Our ability to defend them is going to be about a focus on us, a focus on what we do, our design, our structure and the execution of that structure,” Lea said. “Then utilizing the other two phases as well to limit possessions.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.