The Ole Miss Rebels opened their 2017 campaign Saturday night with a decisive 47-27 win over South Alabama. Recently promoted head coach Matt Luke made his debut in front of 62,532 fans in Oxford.
Shea Patterson completed 28 of 35 attempts for 429 yards and four touchdowns, while sophomore running back Jordan Wilkins, who sat out in 2016 after failing to meet NCAA academic standards for eligibility, added eight carries and 29 yards of his own.
“We’ll watch the tape, but he threw for 429 yards. That’s pretty good, and he’s only a sophomore,” Luke said about Patterson. “He’s only going to continue to get better.”
But Saturday’s top performer was undoubtedly A.J. Brown. The receiver collected 233 yards against the Jaguars, breaking the Ole Miss record for receiving yards in a game.
“I always knew he had something like that in him,” Patterson said, referencing Brown’s performance.
The record was previously held by Eddie Smalls, who put together a 210-yard performance against Vanderbilt in 1993.
“The goal is to go with the game plan,” Brown said. “Get man to man and win against my man … Run the grass every play.”
The Rebels kicked off but regained possession shortly thereafter. After forcing an early Jaguar punt, the Rebels jumped out to their first lead of the year. Patterson connected with Van Jefferson and D.K. Metcalf for deep gains before ultimately throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to DaMarkus Lodge.
“Every time we line up, you’ve got to make a decision. You want to hold D.K.? You want to hold Van? Lodge? Or you want to hold me?” Brown said.
Shortly after a successful extra point attempt, Ole Miss forced a turnover. The Rebels came up short of the end zone, but Gary Wunderlich completed a 19-yard field goal, giving Ole Miss a 10-point lead.
“We settled for field goals … We always want to get touchdowns,” Luke said.
South Alabama settled in midway through the first half, completing a field goal and touchdown of its own before head referee Matt Loeffler blew the quarter to a close.
“There’s too much leaky yardage,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “One of the biggest things they did was run the ball on the perimeter, and we’ve got to get that fixed.”
The Jaguars continued their run of form into the second quarter, halting a number of Rebel drives before scoring a touchdown of their own with five minutes left in the half, courtesy of a 30-yard touchdown caught by Jamarius Way.
South Alabama’s Neiko Robinson went down with a cramp near the end of the second quarter, giving the Rebels’ offense a chance to regroup. The break in play almost paid dividends for Ole Miss; Patterson and Co. charged down the field before pausing at the 12-yard line and settling for another field goal attempt. Wunderlich converted, and the Rebels entered the half up 13-10.
Metcalf caught five passes in the first half, good for 52 yards, while Patterson completed 17 of 22 attempts.
As the second half kicked off, the Rebels wasted no time recapturing their control of the game. Patterson immediately launched a 71-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown. Brown dodged a Nigel Lawrence tackle around the South Alabama 40-yard line before running untouched into the end zone. After a rare extra point miss from Wunderlich, the Rebels took a 19-10 lead.
Minutes later, Ole Miss forced a punt and retook possession. Patterson, displaying impressive second-half form, slipped out of the pocket and lasered another pass to Brown. The sophomore forced his way past two South Alabama defensive backs for a 77-yard touchdown. Wunderlich shook off his previous attempt and drained the extra point. Ole Miss’ lead grew to 26-10.
With six minutes left in the third quarter, Jaguar quarterback Cole Garvin led his team down the field but failed to punch in the touchdown. South Alabama settled for a field goal, cutting the Rebels’ lead to 13.
“I was really pleased when they got down there and the defense held them to field goals twice,” Luke said. “I thought we came out in the second half and came out with a fast start.”
Ole Miss had an answer for seemingly every question the Jaguars raised. Jaylon Jones returned the Jaguars’ ensuing kickoff and sprinted 97 yards into the end zone. The sophomore kickoff returner cut straight up the field, juking several defenders en route to the Rebels’ fourth touchdown of the game and a 33-13 lead. Another touchdown several minutes later increased the Rebels’ lead to 40-13, courtesy of a 14-yard touchdown pass from Patterson to Lodge, his second of the game.
The fourth quarter brought more of the same for Luke’s Rebels. Brown made a 44-yard catch early to put the Rebels in scoring position before D’Vaughn Pennamon carried the ball across the line. Wunderlich split the uprights again, inflating the lead to 34 points.
After a South Alabama touchdown seven minutes into the fourth quarter cut the scoreline to 47-20, Patterson again took the Ole Miss offense into South Alabama territory, only to settle for a 45-yard field goal attempt. Wunderlich missed wide and the deficit plateaued at 27. South Alabama would add one more touchdown, a 1-yard rush from Garvin, before the game concluded.
Head coach Matt Luke, entering his first season at the helm of the ship in Oxford, spoke well of his team’s display while reassuring members of the media he would continue refining the team’s performances.
“A lot of emotion early, but once the game got kicked off, we got settled,” Luke said. “I think there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get cleaned up. Overall, pleased with the first game.”
The Rebels now prepare for next week’s matchup in Oxford against the University of Tennessee at Martin. Kickoff is slated for at 11 a.m.