After what seemed like endless hours of heartbreak, Ole Miss finally broke through.
In a game in which the Kentucky Wildcats had the Rebels on the ropes in the third quarter, the Ole Miss defense held strong just long enough for head coach Matt Luke and company to storm back into the win column. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu went 31 of 40 through the air for 382 yards and four touchdowns, including a game-winning jump-ball to D.K. Metcalf in the corner of the end zone with five seconds remaining in the game.
Ole Miss is used to impressive offensive play, but defensive stops have been hard to come by. But that was not the case Saturday, and it made all the difference.
Ole Miss’ defense has struggled all season, and that’s no secret. It faltered in the first half as Kentucky scored on each of its offensive possessions.
Kentucky led the Rebels 20-17 at halftime and added a touchdown on its first drive of the second half to inflate its lead to 10. If Ole Miss’ defense continued its season-long struggles, the Rebels were going to lose another tough football game. Their offense could put up points, but if the defense couldn’t come up with a stop, it wouldn’t matter.
But then, almost as quickly as the Landshark was named Ole Miss’ on-field mascot earlier this year, the “Landshark D” showed up.
Ole Miss forced the Wildcats to punt on four straight possessions, giving the Rebels’ vastly improved running game an opportunity to take a 30-27 lead. Ole Miss also found success passing the ball against a floundering Kentucky secondary, and with the stops forced by the defense, Ole Miss’ scores paid off. Though Wesley McGriff’s unit gave up a late Wildcat touchdown, it put the Rebels in a position to win the game on the following possession.
The defensive improvement, Ta’amu’s performance and Metcalf’s game-winning reception were all important, but something more important came out of Saturday’s 37-34 Rebel win.
Entering Saturday’s match, Ole Miss had lost five of its last six games, including a massive meltdown against Arkansas just a week prior. And when it appeared that the Rebels were out of the game entirely, they charged into the face of adversity and came out with a victory.
Coach Luke has praised the resilience of his team all season long, citing its ability to “get up off the mat” during a year riddled with controversy and painful losses. This time, when the Rebels got up, their resilience led to victory.
But let’s not sugarcoat this. Kentucky is a team with visible problems. It may be bowl-eligible, but it is bowl-eligible in the floundering SEC East, and even though Ole Miss won the game, the play of its defense as a whole is still a massive concern going forward. But when their backs were against the wall, the Rebels overcame the obstacles they faced and picked up a much-needed win.
Ole Miss has faced adversity time and time again in 2017. The departure of its head coach, the injury of its starting quarterback and a self-imposed postseason ban have left this team and fan base calloused to bad news and miserable scorelines. On Saturday, however, the adversity didn’t win — Ole Miss did.
With the final decision from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on the horizon, the Rebels may soon be called on again to rise above these seemingly unrelenting circumstances.
But Ole Miss has something to celebrate this week. The Rebels won a tough football game Saturday, and that is reason enough to be content, for the time being.