Ole Miss football: 3 takeaways from the Rebels' victory over Kentucky
No. 14 Ole Miss had plenty of time to remedy any issues and make some tweaks with the opportunity to open the season against 4 nonconference opponents, and there were some questions as to just how solid a team that features this many transfers and turnover would look against higher-level competition.
The matchup against 7th-ranked Kentucky to open SEC play was certainly tougher than the ones the Rebels won to get to 4-0, but in the end they prevailed 22-19 at Vaught Hemingway Stadium to move to 5-0 for the first time since 2014.
Here’s a look into 3 things we took away from the contest:
1. Ground game still worked against tougher foe
Ole Miss came into this game with the best rushing attack in the SEC and 1 of the top 5 in the entire nation. But there was still very much the feeling of “the Rebels hadn’t played anyone yet” from the skeptics that remained even after the Rebels steamrolled 4 teams on the ground.
But this was no fluke as the Rebels proved their running backs were for real against an SEC team. Ole Miss tallied 186 yards on the ground in the victory led by Quinshon Judkins, who has been a force of late and totaled 106 yards and 1 touchdown on 15 carries for a more-than-respectable average of 7.1 yards per rush. Directly behind him was quarterback Jaxson Dart — who continues to improve as a passer by the game but has consistently been a force with his legs as a developing dual threat — who had 40 rushing yards on 8 carries.
Zach Evans has typically been the leader in this category but finished with a modest total of 24 rushing yards on 9 carries, though he did have 1 touchdown.
2. Defense comes up big when called upon
When it comes to games that come down to the wire like this one did, it’s typically an important defensive play toward the end that determines who ultimately comes out on top. That was exactly the case here, and it was Austin Keys who forced a fumble by Will Levis when the heralded Wildcats quarterback attempted to carry the ball himself in the red zone within the final 3 minutes of the game.
That’s something that usually works out for a power-running signal-caller like Levis. But the Rebels came up with the turnover, and it was A.J. Finley who got the recovery at the Ole Miss 21-yard line.
The Wildcats once again brought themselves within scoring range within the final 2 minutes of the game, but the Rebels defense forced yet another takeaway on a fumble to secure the narrow win.
Ole Miss had 3 sacks on the day. Linebacker Troy Brown was the defensive leader with 9 total tackles (3 solo), 0.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss and 1 pass breakup.
3. Passing game opens up further as Heath shines
We’ve heard plenty about the rushing attack and there’s reason for that as previously mentioned. The Rebels have only had to throw the ball when they’ve wanted to to this point in the season, which has been helpful for a quarterback still getting his feet under him.
But the passing attack opened up in a way that has not been seen this season on Saturday, something that hasn’t really happened since last season with quarterback Matt Corral at the helm in the “score from far” offense. Dart did have some throws he would like to have back — especially the 1 interception he threw late in the 2nd quarter that ended a drive that looked like it had potential — but he finished with some positive takeaways through the air, completing 15-of-29 passes for 213 yards.
The standout target who emerged on offense was Mississippi State transfer wide receiver Malik Heath, who caught 6 of the 9 passes he was targeted on to reach the century mark at exactly 100 yards. Ole Miss didn’t have a touchdown through the air, but it will be interesting to see how this develops as the schedule rolls on, continuing with Vanderbilt this Saturday.