The Rebels failed to break the 100-yard rushing plateau in either game. They instead relied on explosive passing plays and winning the turnover battle. The result? Ole Miss claimed back-to-back wins for the first time in series history — a 23-17, last-second win in 2014, followed by a 43-37 thriller in Tuscaloosa a year ago.
However, Rebel QBs coach and co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner would prefer his team not have to follow such a formula when it goes for a three-peat Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.
Ole Miss has struggled to generate much on the ground through two games this season. The Rebels, who enter play with a 1-1 record, are currently 12th out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference with 120.5 rushing yards per game.
Alabama tops the league in rushing defense with 87 yards allowed and a 1.7 yards-per-carry-against average.
“We’ve got to do the same things we’ve done the past few years,” Werner said. “Our runs are all run-pass options, basically. If they’re going to give us the run, we’re going to hand it off. If not, we’re going to throw it. That’s how our offense works. These guys do not like to let you run the football against them, and not many people have done it. So it is going to be tough, but we’ll try as hard as we can to concoct a few ways and see what happens.”
Werner said utilizing the running ability of quarterback Chad Kelly is “a big part” of the Rebels’ ground success.
Last season, the 6-foot-2, 224-pound Kelly set a school record and finished third in SEC history in total yards. Ten of his 41 total touchdowns were of the rushing variety, most by an Ole Miss quarterback since Archie Manning in 1969. He was second on the team with 500 rushing yards.
Two games into 2016, though, have been a different story. He’s totaled all of 28 yards on 17 carries.
“Obviously, later on in the season we ran him even more,” Werner said. “But like I said, they have a good idea of how to stop the run game, so we’ve got to find a few other ways and he’s one of the options.”
Akeem Judd is an option, too, of course. He’s one of the last running backs standing after Jordan Wilkins was ruled academically ineligible prior to the season and Eric Swinney was lost for the year with an ACL injury suffered against Florida State in the season opener.
“We’re hoping that he’ll step up and play really well,” Werner said of Judd. “Obviously, if he’s the hot hand, we’ll keep him in there. But we feel confident in those other guys, too.”
Werner said young reserves D.K. Buford and D’Vaughn Pennamon are coming along.
“Just the fact they are understanding the protections,” he said “That’s the big thing when you come from high school to college, we have so many different protections and defenses run so many different blitzes that it’s tough for them to learn it. But I see them coming along, and we feel confident in those guys.”
But whether or not Ole Miss finds rushing success, the outcome will rest — as expected — on the throwing arm of Kelly.
Kelly, a preseason All-American, leads the SEC with seven passing touchdowns and 42 points responsible for. He has seven career games of three-plus touchdowns and nine with 300-plus passing yards, including a three-touchdown, 341-yard effort at Alabama last season.
“We talk about shots,” Werner said. “Taking a shot is not throwing it between two linebackers. It’s, I got a guy singled up, running deep. I’m going to take my shot and trust my receiver is going to make a play for it. It’s not like he’s throwing it into double coverage. If he’s doing that, very often then he’s going to be standing on the sideline.”
On who’s calling plays this season: “We sort of tag team it.”
On left tackle play so far: “I think they’ve both (Rod Taylor and Greg Little) played well. We haven’t had a whole lot of issues there. Obviously this game, you’ll get to see some really good rushers. That’s one thing I think Alabama has done, they’ve really gotten better at that position, defensive end, so this will be a great test for them.”
On what has led to Evan Engram’s rise in production: “It’s nothing he’s done. Our whole offense is based off what they give us, and it seemed like the first couple of teams tried to take away the outside receivers and that opens Evan up. We may go in this game and they decide we’re going to stop Evan and hopefully the other guys step up.”
On common elements in Ole Miss’ last two wins over Alabama: “The two things when you play a really good defense, the two things that you need to do to win a football game are hit some big plays and protect the football. We did both of those in those games and that was the difference.”