OXFORD | Ole Miss coaches and players spent the first four weeks of the season defending its rushing game, praising minute improvement and promising progress in short order.
Early struggles and elite run defenses in the initial month of the season made many comments seem like platitudes, but despite injuries to starting quarterback Shea Patterson and multiple offensive linemen, the Rebels have rallied in the run game.
Spearheaded by Jordan Wilkins’ best performances of his career, Ole Miss is a balanced, multi-faceted attack that has averaged more than 40 points the past five weeks. Jordan Ta’amu has been brilliant at quarterback, including a game-winning drive against Kentucky and 418 yards through the air against ULL, but he’s aided consistently by Wilkins and an offensive line that has found traction.
“I think (the run game) has helped our offense,” Matt Luke said Monday. “We’ve become balanced. It opens some things in the pass game when you have to respect the run game and the safeties have to come down, it creates one-on-one matchups outside. I’m very pleased with where it’s at.”
Wilkins had 28 carries for 103 yards the first three weeks of the season as the Rebels sputtered running against forgiving defenses in South Alabama, UT Martin and California. Ole Miss’ top back getting fewer than four yards per carry didn’t garner much positive appeal, but then a shift occurred in the background of a 66-3 loss at Alabama.
The game was never in doubt so it was glossed over, but Wilkins picked up his first 100-yard game against an FBS opponent, averaging more than eight yards per carry and totaling 101 yards against the Crimson Tide. Prior to that night, the senior’s career highs for carries and rush yards against FBS teams were 9 (New Mexico, 2015) and 54 (MSU, 2015), respectively.
Wilkins, while dealing with an ankle injury that has held him out of some practice time most weeks, has averaged at least five yards per carry in each game since then, and he’s added three more 100-yard efforts, including a career-high 125 — on 14 touches — against the Ragin’ Cajuns this past weekend.
The Memphis native rushed for 6.37 yards per carry during the four October games and is at 7.64 two weeks into November. For the season, Wilkins has 754 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 12 rushes per game.
He’s 25th nationally — and fifth in the SEC — in yards per attempt.
While the lack of a bowl game possibility makes this task much more difficult, he’s in the area of becoming Ole Miss’ sixth 1,000-yard rusher for a season. There have been seven occurrences as BenJarvus Green-Ellis did it twice. Wilkins needs 197 yards to tie Joe Gunn (951) for 10th in school history for a season.
“I think the running game has been there, it’s just been the commitment, the decision to commit to the running game and let the O-linemen come off the ball and be aggressive and physical,” Luke said. “Yards per carry is very important to us, not so much the total yardage. When we do hand it off, we want those runs to be efficient. I think he’s over six yards per carry, and that’s a positive thing.”
Ole Miss’ schedule has softened in recent weeks, but Wilkins has a higher yards per carry number against ranked teams (6.63) than unranked teams (5.98).
Ole Miss faces Texas A&M Saturday and travels to Mississippi State on Thanksgiving to close its season. The Aggies give up 3.94 yards per carry, though their defensive line is long and athletic. Ole Miss coaches compared it to Auburn’s front. And the Bulldogs are 32nd nationally in run defense, as MSU allows 131 yards per game and 3.85 per rush.
Wilkins overcame a serious knee injury in high school and sat out in 2016 after an academic adviser snafu made him ineligible. Patient and utilized effectively, Wilkins has been a leader and performer during this turbulent season.
“You just want success for him,” wide receiver A.J. Brown said about Wilkins prior to the season. “He works hard and always is a model for what to do. That’s a guy you need on the field with you.”