November 22, 2017 5:18:04 PM
STARKVILLE -- Todd Grantham lives for third and long.
In his now eight seasons of coordinating a defense at the college level spread through three different schools, currently as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator, one constant has remained: relentlessly pressuring quarterbacks when the down-and-distance situation dictates a pass. The only thing Grantham needs to get there is a solid first-down defense.
Ole Miss has proven to be quite good at busting those.
The Egg Bowl between No. 16 MSU (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 14 College Football Playoff) and Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 SEC) pits one the top first-down offenses in the nation and one of the top first-down defense in the nation. Grantham knows it's likely first down is where the game could be decided.
"They have good runners, they have skill guys and they have a really good quarterback," he said. "We know we have to play."
Ole Miss has slightly favored the pass on first down this season, throwing 181 times compared to 174 runs, and has been more effective through the air. The Rebels' first-down passer rating of 169.01 ranks 15th nationally and its 72.9 completion percentage ranks eighth, good for second in the conference. Sixty-two of those 181 first-down pass attempts (34.2 percent) have resulted immediately in another first down and 22 of them have gone for 25 or more yards, which ranks tied for third in the nation.
Even running on first down has been an effective move for the Rebels: their 5.59 yards per carry on first-down runs ranks 21st in the nation.
Meanwhile, teams have shied away from throwing on MSU on first down -- and understandably so, since MSU has allowed a first-down completion percentage of 55.3 that ranks 25th in the nation. Running on first down hasn't been effective, either: MSU allows 3.74 yards per first-down carry, ranking 22nd in the nation.
Even with those numbers and 11 games of data to work with, MSU is still dealing with a wild-card: Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta'amu.
Ta'amu has only played four games as the starter after former starting quarterback Shea Patterson was ruled out for the season with a knee injury. MSU head coach Dan Mullen has seen no change in the Rebel offense since he took over.
"I see him executing at a high level," Mullen said. "I think one of the things with a junior college player instead of a freshman coming in as the backup quarterback, he played college football before, had some experience.
"I think they have very similar styles in what they do: he can beat you with his legs running the ball, may even be a little more athletic than Shea even though I think Shea is a really athletic guy."
The numbers show, at least on first down, that there are some differences in the Rebel offense with Ta'amu at the helm.
First, it's meant more quarterback runs. In seven games, Patterson only ran 20 times on first down -- and five of those runs were sacks. In four games (and the two series he played against LSU, the game in which Patterson suffered the injury), Ta'amu has run 16 times for 46 yards, already besting Patterson's 24 first-down rushing yards in three fewer games.
Ta'amu's emergence has also meant more targets and catches for standout wide receiver A.J. Brown. The Starkville native has handled the extra workload well, keeping his first-down yards per catch nearly identical, but has increased his first-down catches per game from 2.5 with Patterson at quarterback to 4.5 under Ta'amu. He was averaging 29.16 first-down yards per game under Patterson and he's averaged 53.25 since Ta'amu took over.
The increased workload for Brown has meant slightly less attention for D.K. Metcalf -- 2.4 first-down catches per game with Patterson to 1.75 with Ta'amu -- but that could be credited just as much to the emergence of tight end Dawson Knox.
Knox did not play in Ole Miss' first two games and did not register a catch in two of the next four. By the time Knox got fully incorporated into the offense, he was a weapon exclusively for Ta'amu and not one that he has taken lightly: Knox has caught nine passes for 154 yards on first downs.
Whoever is getting the ball on first down, Ole Miss has proven its ability to score immediately. The Rebels have scored on first down 18 times this year and nine different players have done the honors; Ta'amu has run for three first-down scores already in his four games.
Pressuring Ta'amu in Grantham's trademark style isn't as easy as simple blitzing him; the real challenge is creating the blitz situation.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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