HOUSTON — Throughout spring practice and fall camp, junior college transfer running back Scottie Phillips was a name Matt Luke and Phil Longo regularly regurgitated when asked who stood out in a particular practice on a particular day. It usually had something to with Phillips breaking a long run against the defense and the coaches would clamor at his breakaway speed.
That burst was on full display in Saturday’s 47-27 trouncing of Texas Tech. Phillips ran for 204 yards on 16 touches with a pair of touchdowns. He broke runs of 39 and 65 yards in the two scores and averaged 12.8 yards per rush.
“He’s got two things,” Longo said. “He is very decisive. He is a lot like Jordan Ta’amu. He is very decisive when he runs the football. He also has a fifth gear. He can run over you. He can slash if he needs too. He has that fifth gear and he can take it to the house when he needs to and when they give him a crease. He did that today.”
The lone unknown for Ole Miss on the offensive side of the football coming into this season was how the Rebels would replace Jordan Wilkins at running back. It certainly appears they’ve found a competent successor in Phillips who became the first Ole Miss running back to run for 200 yards in a game since Brandon Bolden in 2010.
“From what we saw in spring and fall, I think we suspected he had some explosive talent,” Longo said. “He does and he showed that today. Hopefully that continues as the season goes on.”
It took a couple of series for Phillips to get going. He struggled a bit on the first two drives, but found his footing after that. The 39-yard touchdown run in which he bounced outside after hitting a hole on the right side, seemingly calmed any jitters Phillips had about his first college game.
“I had some nerves with it being my first SEC game,” Phillips said. “I think I did a good job settling in the next couple of drives. Then I broke one.”
The offensive line blocked well for Phillips, especially considering they lost Sean Rawlings and Alex Givens for portions of the game. If last year showed evidence of anything about Longo’s offense, it’s that it needs a downhill running game to run smoothly just as a car engine needs oil. Phillips’ long runs demoralized a Texas Tech defense that was already having all sorts of issues covering Ole Miss on the perimeter.
It took pressure off Jordan Ta’amu and kept the Red Raiders off balance all afternoon. The Rebels scored fast. A two-play, 69-yard drive to open the game and Jaylon Jones took a kickoff to the house shortly after that. After the first quarter, the offense hit a bit of a lull. It didn’t score a touchdown in the second quarter and struggled on its first couple of drives in the third quarter. Phillips then proceeded to break off for a 65-yard score to thrust the offense back into motion.
“The word I have been using is cautiously optimistic,” Luke said. “Because I did see some really good things in fall and spring. He has short, quick bursts. But he also has breakaway speed when he hits the line. I was really pleased to see him have success.”
Luke added that he would like to be more efficient running the football in consistently getting four and five yards at the time. That is a fair request because the Rebels had quite a few running plays blown up at the line of scrimmage and the bulk of Phillips’ yardage game on three or four of his 16 touches. Aside from that and Ta’amu missing on a couple of intermediate throws, it was a good performance for an offense that put up 546 yards. A.J. Brown had seven catches for 93 yards and a score. Damarkus Lodge caught six balls for 96 yards and D.K. Metcalf had 81 yards and a touchdown. Even Braylon Sanders compiled 60 yards
“The receivers did what we expected them to do,” Longo said. “They took advantage of some individual match ups and made plays at key times in the game. I was pleased without how Jordan threw it too.”
Ta’amu managed the game well and spread the ball around. He was 22-of-32 for 336 yards and the two touchdown passes. They struggled near the red zone in the middle portion of the game and settled for a trio of field goals that kept Texas Tech in the game, but popped off enough explosive plays to overcome that.
“I think played alright but it could’ve been better,” Ta’amu said. “I could have made more accurate throws. I could’ve made better decisions. We will watch that on film but I was happy with how we played.”
Perhaps a lost note in all of this is that Luke Logan went 3-for-3 on field goals, including career long of 39 yards. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Gary Wunderlich and had a strong performance on Saturday.
Overall, it was an important win for a team and program looking to generate some buzz and excitement. With the schedule getting daunting in the season’s first month, this win went a long way to ensure the Rebels won’t sputter out of gate.
“I think it is big,” Luke said. “It gives us some positive momentum. We have 12 opportunities and we want to take advantage of them.”