OXFORD, Miss. – Finding a way to limit explosive plays has been somewhat of an ongoing saga for the Ole Miss defense this season. Dave Wommack, the Rebels’ defensive coordinator, is now focused on stopping another talented, mobile quarterback—Mississippi State’s sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
The one issue of concern to Wommack is Fitzgerald’s ability to make plays outside of the pocket with his legs. The Rebels have already faced mobile quarterbacks like Fitzgerald in games this season in Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Florida State’s Deondre Francois, and Wofford’s Brad Butler.
Hurts was the only signal-caller this season to hit the 100-yard mark against the Rebels, rushing for 146 yards on 18 carries. Butler and Francois rushed for 63 and 59 yards, respectively.
Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) in passing (2,178) and rushing (985) yards. He has also rushed for an SEC-leading 12 touchdowns.
“I think when you put a one-plus in there with the extra quarterback running, that’s one more blocker that they have,” Wommack said. “It creates problems for everybody, so you got to be able to account for him in the passing game as well. I think any team that runs a quarterback, like they do and as much as they did, you have to account for them.”
Preparing for another scrambling quarterback isn’t anything new for Wommack, but he will need the Landshark defense lined up correctly, one of the problems Wommack pointed out as the main reason for Ole Miss giving up explosive plays.
After analyzing game film from last Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt, Wommack admitted he wanted to throw up. The Rebels gave up 123 yards and three TDs to Commodores’ star running back Ralph Webb. Vanderbilt’s quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 17 of 30 passes for 273 yards and two scores.
Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) ranks 101st out of 128 FBS schools in total defense, giving up 451.7 yards per game.
“I didn’t think we executed well, didn’t get lined up five or six times,” Wommack said. “I didn’t think the energy was what it usually is with our group.”
Last Saturday, Fitzgerald embarrassed Arkansas’ defense, passing for 328 yards and running for 131 more, and was responsible for all six of MSU’s touchdowns. The Bulldogs fell to the Razorbacks 58-42 at home, but Wommack saw Fitzgerald’s skill set as the main reason why preparation for MSU’s offense is, somewhat, difficult.
“I think anytime you’ve got a quarterback this late in the season and as much as he has played, I think he’s feeling more comfortable and he’s gotten more confident,” Wommack said about Fitzgerald, whose 985 rushing yards is just one yard shy of tying the Bulldogs’ single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Dak Prescott ran for 986 yards as a junior in 2014.
“I thought against Arkansas last week he did a really good job,” Wommack remarked on Fitzgerald. “They scored 42 points and had 537 yards, so I thought they did a really good job. Arkansas was fortunate to outscore them in that game, so they are getting better.”
Manning the middle of the defense without Gates
Junior linebacker DeMarquis Gates will not play in the first half of the Egg Bowl on Saturday (2:30 p.m., SEC Network) after being ejected for targeting against Vanderbilt. Now, Wommack has to make some adjustments to the middle of the defense, an area that’s lacking a lot of depth.
“Just give those other guys an opportunity to play, you know the ones that will get a chance to step up and do what they got to do and that’s all you can do at this point,” Wommack said.
“We will get them playing the best they can and hopefully get them schemed up the right way, give them a chance to be successful.”
Dave Wommack on Ole Miss defense without Gates
Ole Miss and Mississippi State square off in the 2016 Egg Bowl at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Oxford. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.
(Feature image credit: Dan Anderson, The Rebel Walk)