Ole Miss bludgeons Vanderbilt on the ground as it seeks balance and QB clarity

OXFORD — A game that had potential to bring clarity to Ole Miss quarterback situation brought with it something entirely different in the Rebels’ 31-6 win over Vanderbilt.

John Rhys Plumlee took every snap as Matt Corral looked on from the sidelines, watching Plumlee rush 22 times for 165 yards and a score against a feeble Vandy defense. He attempted just 18 passes and completed 10 of them for 99 yards. Ole Miss didn’t need Plumlee’s arm on this night. His feet more than sufficed. The elite speed he flashed in Tuscaloosa overwhelmed the opposing defense.

“John Rhys was able to make some plays with his feet early and get us 10 early points,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I thought that was huge. We stalled out some in the second quarter, but John Rhys’ ability to hurt them with his feet is huge.”

Plumlee found out he was starting on Saturday morning. Though Corral appeared to be healthy on the sideline, Luke said he was not 100 percent and that the coaching staff did not feel he could absorb hits rushing the football.

“I think Matt could throw it if we needed him too,” Luke said. “Hopefully he will continue to get better and we will be able to use him some going forward, make people prepare for both.”

His words taken at face value, Luke spoke like a man that plans to play both Corral and Plumlee going forward. Completely pulling the plug on Corral in game six of his redshirt freshman season would have been quite the gamble, and possibly a foolish one at that. Ole Miss spent the entire offseason anointing Corral as the face of the program. He went to SEC Media Days as an underclassmen.  For the moment, it sounds as if he is still very much part of the future. Maybe just not the sole occupant of the position.  

“We have two starting quarterbacks in my opinion,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said, “and another guy in Grant Tisdale that I have a lot of confidence in. John Rhys had a good week last week, played solidly.. He is a competitor and we won, so that is good.”

So what does this mean going into a road game at Missouri? Ole Miss’ quarterback picture still remains relatively unclear. Will the Rebels use Corral, a more polished passer if and when he is healthy? Will Plumlee settle into a package of plays that utilize his feet?  How does Tisdale fit into the long-term picture? The Rebels are still searching for clarity. The only form of it they received on this night is that they have an elite weapon in Plumlee’s speed that adds another dimension to a scheme that prefers to use the quarterback as the focal point in the running game.

“There were some times we can force you to throw and we didn’t execute that,” Rodriguez said. “But we broke some long runs with some young guys. It is neat to see that freshman group take off a little bit.”

Plumlee’s speed, coupled with the ground game as a whole were more than enough to accomplish the task at hand. Ole Miss bludgeoned the Commodores on the ground to the tune of 413 yards on 44 touches. The Rebels averaged 9.4 yards per carry. The rushing barrage was largely fueled by a youth movement. True freshmen Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy broke touchdown runs of 84 and 78 yards respectively on back-to-back drives that altered the course of the game. Vanderbilt trailed just 10-6 with 13 minutes remaining. Four minutes and five Ole Miss offensive snaps later, the Commodores were in a 24-6 hole they couldn’t crawl out of.

Ealy carried the ball four times for 97 yards. Conner toted it five times for 91 yards. Each ranked behind bell cow Scottie Phillips, who amassed 11 carries for 62 yards, and Plumlee’s 22   touches. But the pair of young backs flashed their home-run hitting ability.

“I told (Conner) it is your time now baby,” Ealy quipped when asked about Conner one-upping his 78-yard burst on the next series. “I am having the most fun I have ever had in my life out there.”

The arrival of Conner and Ealy produced a crowded and diverse backfield that has become the team’s identity, even more so with Plumlee being added to the mix. In addition to watching the present unfold, these three true freshmen are provided a glimpse in to Ole Miss’ offensive future.

“It is exciting,” Plumlee said. “It is really awesome to have guys like that in the backfield that draw guys in toward them. It makes it easy for me. When they have success, it draws the defense in and allows me to pull it. It happens the other way around too. It keeps the defense on their heels.”

It is undeniable that Plumlee’s insertion has made Ole Miss a more dangerous offense and better running team. The gradual improvement of an inexperienced offensive line hasn’t hurt either. But is this sustainable against better competition? Plumlee’s speed plays on any field against any opponent. The stable of backs in Ealy, Conner and Phillips are capable of wearing down the sturdiest of defenses. But at some point, the Rebels are going to need to be more of a threat in the vertical passing game. One dimensional offenses will not net results in this league. Where do they find that second dimension and from who? 

The answer will surely be found in the coming weeks as the schedule stiffens. 

“Our guys do a really good job,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have a lot of variety in our plays, but we do them in a lot of different formations. When you are playing with 11 with the quarterback as a factor, it gives you an edge.”

Catch Brian Scott Rippee’s postgame chat:

PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics