Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack must've been shaking his head incessantly Monday evening. Not necessarily towards his own squad, but Hugh Freeze's offense.
In the span of five minutes, Florida State's offense scored sixteen points, capturing their first lead in the third quarter. It was astounding to watch. And while FSU's offense drove mightily down the field on their first drive of the second half, Wommack's defense was able to limit them to their third field goal of the game.
On the ensuing Ole Miss drive, Chad Kelly threw an interception. Momentum and a short field allowed the Seminoles to find the end zone for a second time. On the Rebels next offensive possession, FSU senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker sacked Kelly, causing a fumble which FSU secured. Another short field, another FSU touchdown.
For all intents and purposes, with the way Florida State moved the ball at times during the first half and the way FSU's defense completely locked down Ole Miss' offense in the second, Florida State probably should've scored fourteen more points than it actually did.
Wommack's defense completely smothered redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois in the first quarter and held Heisman hopeful Dalvin Cook to a stingy 91 yards on 23 carries. Granted, Jimbo Fisher wanted to use Cook in the receiving game and was successful at it to the tune of seven catches for 101 yards.
Still, Ole Miss' defense, which had two freshman corners for much of the game, was able to limit FSU to more field goals (6) than they did touchdowns (4). And while this is obviously a meager consolation prize for the Rebels, the result could have been a helluva lot worse considering the circumstances.
It must be frustrating beyond belief for any defensive coordinator whose counterpart runs the hurry-up. Like many of Chip Kelly's great offenses at Oregon, Freeze's squad was moving with maximum velocity during the first half of Monday's game. Only one of their scoring drives exceeded two minutes, with the shortest clocking in at an astonishing 47 seconds.
This requires the defense to practically have one knee on the bench with their helmets on, because their high risk/high reward offense will either score in less than a minute or will turn it over in less time than that. This, of course, was exactly the case Monday evening.
The defense gave up 580 yards, most on explosive plays involving the precocious Francois. On top of that, the Rebels surrendered 32 first downs to the Seminoles. The most telling stat, though, is this: Dave Wommack's defense was on the field for over 42 minutes. That's nearly three-fourths of the game.
That last statistic is a direct effect of Freeze's offense and more broadly, the HUNH. And this is why Wommack's defense over the last four seasons has been so deceptively good, especially the last two.
In 2015, Ole Miss finished 54th in the FBS in total defense with 385 yards per game, while the offense finished 119th in total time of possession with 26 minutes per game. Wommack has essentially had to train his defense to be on the field for over 50 percent of every game, while almost half of the FBS's offenses last year were able to average at least 30 minutes per game.
This was a similar issue that Nick Aliotti dealt and largely succeeded with when he was DC at Oregon. And what's more, Wommack is doing a terrific job with lesser talent than Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn. Yes, Freeze was able to nab Robert Nkemdiche in 2013, but look what Wommack was able to make out of his older, less heralded brother Denzel. Denzel Nkemdiche was a four-year starter at linebacker, where he wreaked havoc regularly.
The first-team defense (before Ken Webster's horrific injury Monday night) consisted of an average 3.3-star recruits out of high school or JUCO, according to the 247 composite. Individuals like Tony Connor, Tony Bridges and Breeland Speaks certainly beef up the average, but Wommack is coaching up mostly former three-star recruits.
The interesting thing is, though, when you watch this defense, they don't look all that dissimilar to that of Alabama or LSU. They are super athletic and they swarm to the ball. They are incredibly fast. The "Landshark" designation is just that for a reason.
Throughout most of the first half against FSU, Ole Miss' defense was able to penetrate FSU's offensive line and repeatedly made things difficult for Francois and Cook. Francois' passes were hurried and nary on target. And Wommack was able to make all of this occur by creating as much chaos as possible.
Seldom was there an offensive snap that Wommack didn't stack the box with at least six guys, either disguising or all-out blitzing the quarterback. Almost every major player on their deep defensive line had at least one quarterback hurry.
This gets back to the dilemma with which Wommack is faced being Hugh Freeze's defensive coordinator: depth and athleticism, stamina and toughness. It was only after FSU's defense began to figure out Ole Miss' offense that Wommack's guys finally started to show signs of fatigue. They were on the field for an even longer period of time than what they're used to.
Hugh Freeze teams thrive on chaos in general. They've been able to topple Alabama the last two seasons not because they were necessarily more talented, but because they knew they weren't. Through this, he and Wommack created opportunities for their scrappy bunch that put them in situations to be successful.
Last year, they picked off two different Alabama quarterbacks three times and caused two fumbles on two different kick off coverages. All but one of these turnovers led to points, three of them touchdowns. If Wommack's defense can swarm these more talented teams with as much mayhem as possible, they will ultimately get a turnover, which will, in turn, give Freeze's offense a short field to score many many points.
This plan didn't work quite as well Monday night, although it looked liked it could've. Hell, they had Cook so frazzled that he fumbled the ball on his way for a touchdown. Seriously, watch the video. Not a single Ole Miss defender is near him when it happens. Wommack coaches up some serious voodoo.
Going forward, the Ole Miss faithful should feel somewhat pleased. They get number one Alabama in Oxford this year and the smart money says they'll flummox them yet again. They draw Georgia and Vandy from the East and they face a Western division that isn't quite as dangerous as was once thought.
As long as Dave Wommack is in the booth for the Rebels, opposing offenses needn't feel overly confident. His guys collectively understand the game and they sure as hell know how to locate the football. And at the end of the day, isn't that the point?