OXFORD − Ole Miss football found a way.
The No. 11 Rebels defeated No. 8 Kentucky 22-19 on Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium,marking Ole Miss’ first 5-0 start since 2014. The Rebels held on to win after holding the Wildcats to zero points on two red zone trips in the fourth quarter thanks to two turnovers.
Linebacker Austin Keys made a decisive play, forcing Kentucky quarterback Will Levis to fumble in the red zone with 2:55 left in a three-point game and preventing the Wildcats from setting up a game-tying field goal or scoring the go-ahead touchdown. After Keys’ forced fumble, Ole Miss’ offense went three-and-out, giving Kentucky another chance at tying the score or taking the lead with 1:49 remaining.
After a 51-yard completion got Kentucky inside the 10-yard line, the Wildcats appeared to throw a game-winning touchdown, but it was taken off the board because of an illegal motion penalty. On the next play, defensive end Jared Ivey forced Levis to fumble again, strip-sacking the quarterback to give the Rebels the win.
The Rebels led by as many as 14 points in the first half. But as was the case in games last month against Troy and Tulsa, Ole Miss’ offense disappeared in the second half, allowing Kentucky to claw back into the game. Kentucky’s methodical offense chewed up clock, and the Rebels only came up with three points off two second-half red zone trips, making this a one-score game late in the fourth quarter.
Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart threw for 213 yards with an interception. Running back Quinshon Judkins broke free for his third 100-yard rushing performance in five career games, blasting ahead for 106 yards and a touchdown.
How do we feel about the offense?
There were times when Ole Miss’ offense looked every bit as good as it did in non-conference play, like on lightning-quick first-quarter touchdown drives that only lasted 1:40 and 1:45. There were other times, like on Dart’s interception with the Rebels driving at the end of the first half or in trips to the red zone in the second half, when the offense looked listless and mistake-riddled.
The running game still works. The Rebels averaged 4.8 yards per carry and rushed for 186 yards with two touchdowns.But the drives that don’t end in scores almost never go anywhere. It’s encouraging that Ole Miss is so effective in the red zone and still has a couple of big plays in it every game. But the offense isn’t clicking every drive, something that’s holding this team back from reaching its tip-top potential.
The special teams half
Ole Miss went into halftime leading 19-12 almost exclusively because of special teams. Punter Fraser Masin downed two punts inside the 10-yard line. The first was followed by a Kentucky punt, setting up good field position for an Ole Miss scoring drive. The next, which was downed inside the 1, led to a safety. On the drive following the safety, kicker Jonathan Cruz hit a 53-yard field goal, making Masin’s punt worth five points.
The Wildcats also botched two extra points. One was blocked, the other never left the ground because of a bad snap. Of course, Kentucky set up its first touchdown because of an 85-yard kickoff return. Had it not been for all of those special teams boons and conundrums, the score heading into the break could’ve been as low as 7-7.
Defense limits Levis
Kentucky quarterback Levis is projected to be one of the first 10 players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft and came into this game ranked into the top 20 in the FBS in passing yards per game, passing yards per attempt, passer efficiency rating and completion percentage.
Levis only threw for 71 yards in the first half when he was under near-constant pressure. Ole Miss’ defense took points away from Levis by forcing him to intentionally ground a pass while in the end zone, resulting in a safety. Levis smoothed things out a little in the second half but still only finished with 220 passing yards and the two critical fumbles.
Ole Miss visits Vanderbilt next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m., and the game will be televised on SEC Network.
Contact Nick Suss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.