When Joshua Holsey beat A.J. Brown to a football thrown by Chad Kelly with a little more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it swung a back-and-forth game and brought forth Kelly’s only blemish on the evening in what was otherwise an impeccable performance that kept the Rebels afloat for much of the game. Holsey raced down the sidelines with the intercepted ball and was brought down by Kelly 47 yards later at the Auburn 28.
Two plays prior, Kelly had absorbed an enormous hit in an effort to get a screen pass to Eugene Brazley. The play after that, Evan Engram couldn’t come up with a ball over the middle that would have given the Rebels a touchdown and a late fourth-quarter lead, and would have helped Kelly break the school record for passing yards in a game.
“I saw two-high look safeties, and I went out on the one-receiver side and saw Evan running down the field stride-for-stride, straight down the field,” Kelly said. “I could’ve thrown a little better ball. I kind of short-armed it a little bit. Then the next play, we ran all curls and I just threw off my back foot where I was leaning backwards, and I couldn’t get enough power into the ball where it was going to be a good pass.”
The sequence showed the small margin between winning and losing football games in the SEC. It also seemingly represents a perfect microcosm for this season for Ole Miss, one that has been thwarted by missed opportunities.
But another thing that sequence showed is how small Kelly’s margin for error is, and how much Ole Miss asks of the senior quarterback. Kelly threw the ball 59 times. He completed 36 of those passes for 465 yards and three scores. He also ran it 11 times for 40 yards, and extended several plays with his feet and stretched the defense.
After the game, Head Coach Hugh Freeze ranked it as one of Kelly’s top performances that he’s seen, because there have undoubtedly been others.
“I would have to say it is way up there against that defense. They gave up seven touchdowns all year and gave real problems for quarterbacks. I thought our offensive line, even though we were out with a lot of guys,” Freeze said. “I really thought Chad played really well. I couldn’t see on the interception what took place there, but he battled and fought. He is hurting right now. I thought he played really well.”
In a season that has been by injuries, youth and lack of execution at critical times, Ole Miss has ridden Kelly heavily, and he’s been a sturdy lift. He’s completed 62 percent of his passes, and thrown for 2,532 yards and 18 touchdowns. Kelly is the second leading rusher on the team with 411 yards and three scores. His legs have been used often in the wake of an offensive line that’s been hampered by injuries.
Kelly leads the SEC in passing yards, completions (and attempts) and is tied for first in touchdowns. He has the third-highest quarterback rating in America’s toughest conference.
“All those guys fought hard, but at the end of the day, we just want to win,” Kelly said. “This one hurts, but you can’t look back. You just have to keep on fighting. I love my guys to death, and I know they’re going to keep on fighting.”
As the Rebels’ issues elsewhere have glared and the losses have piled up, Kelly has talked a lot about fighting, looking forward and moving on. He’s placed the blame on himself, though it’s hardly been the case. He’s made play after play this season. He’s fought in the very manner that he discusses after games. His mistakes have been amplified, and are often a byproduct of his incredibly heavy workload.
But if his individual performance on Saturday night said anything, it’s that Ole Miss has gotten everything and then some from Kelly in his career, and particularly this year.
“That’s just Chad. He’s a gunslinger,” Engram said. “That’s his game. That’s what type of player he is. He can come out and make all types of throws and be the player that he is, and he is definitely a great one. You see all the records he has in a short time here. I know he’s got it in him.”