By Billy Watkins
It was an encore of November. And something is still off about this Ole Miss football team.
It has been since losing a heartbreaker 30-24 at home to Alabama on Nov. 12, and since the sports world was filled with rumors of head coach Lane Kiffin leaving for Auburn.
Fans across the country saw it for themselves Wednesday night as Texas Tech took Ole Miss to the woodshed, 42-25, in the TaxAct Texas Bowl in Houston.
Both teams finished 8-5. The Rebels did not win a game after beating Texas A&M on the road Oct,. 29.
Ole Miss was favored by 4.5 points. It was the mighty SEC against the finesse-labeled Big 12. Texas Tech was ranked 86th nationally in rushing defense. The Rebels were third in rushing offense. Yet the Red Raiders’ defensive front dominated the first half as they built a 26-7 lead.
From my view, Texas Tech pinched its defensive linemen in most running situations when freshman star Quinshon Judkins was in the game. The SEC’s top rusher had nowhere to go, and the Ole Miss coaches were determined to run him inside. Yes, he gained a lot of yards between the tackles this season. But it was obvious Texas Tech wasn’t going to allow it.
Where was the adjustment? Judkins has shown the ability to run outside, as well. Why keep pounding his head into the teeth of a defensive line that was beating his blockers to the punch?
As good as Ole Miss ran it this season, and as good as the passing game was in stretches, the offense rarely looked smooth. It looked frantic at times. Hit and miss. Red hot or deathly cold. It’s hard to play football like that.
Perhaps we are just now starting to realize how good quarterback Matt Corral was the past two seasons. Somehow, when everything was breaking down, he always seemed to make a play, especially during last year’s 10-win season.
That is in no way a slap at this year’s QB, sophomore Jaxson Dart, who transferred to Ole Miss from USC last January. His talent is immense. His toughness can never be challenged. He showed that aplenty against Texas Tech. He was hit, harassed, knocked for a flip, had his head and shoulder driven into the turf, and at one point was face down on the field as if he had no more to give.
He missed one play. He limped back into the game and made some NFL-type throws. He finished with 361 yards passing and two touchdowns. He rushed for 66 more.
“It’s frustrating,” Dart said at a postgame press conference. “You put a lot of work in and prepare for games like this every week and then you make costly mistakes and don’t play to the standard you set. Really frustrating.”
Dart has a chance to be special. He learned a lot the hard way this season while passing for 2,974 yards and 20 touchdowns. His tackles were redshirt freshmen — talented but learning, too. He lacked a play-making tight end. His receivers were good, but Dart didn’t have anyone to consistently stretch the defense vertically. Not having that affects everything. Safeties become linebackers. Defenders can blitz from any direction. And in the SEC, a team needs some “easy” scores.
Kiffin has already taken steps through the portal to help fix that. (Look up Chris Marshall’s bio to see what I mean.)
But Dart has to do his part, too. He can’t throw three interceptions as he did Wednesday night, and he must get better in the red zone. Those improvements usually come with time. It did with Corral, and I’m betting it does with Dart.
Defensively, the Rebels played hard. They were physical, forced three turnovers. But the Red Raiders’ average starting field position was the 44-yard line, or nearly halfway home. That’s asking a lot of an undersized defense that lacks depth up front — plus lost two starters to targeting.
Again, portal help is needed on the defensive front and at linebacker. Signee Suntarine Perkins out of Raleigh, the No. 1 player in Mississippi, can ’t get to Oxford quickly enough to suit Kiffin. I would be shocked if Perkins isn’t a starting linebacker in the 2023 opener against Mercer.
Bowl games are strange animals.
The winner is not always the better team. More times than not, it’s the team that wants to be there the most. No doubt the Rebels were hoping for a more prestigious bowl after starting 8-1. Texas Tech won its final three games to finish 7-5 and was thrilled with the invite. It showed.
“That team played really, really hard,” Kiffin told Richard Cross, sideline reporter for the Rebels’ radio crew, after the game. “I compliment them.”
Still, it was a wild and crazy game.
***Ole Miss actually outgained Texas Tech, 558 yards to 484.
***Each team punted once.
***During a skirmish in the fourth quarter, the referees botched an unsportsmanlike call. The referee announced that Ole Miss’ No. 71, Jayden Williams, and No. 11, Jordan Watkins, were ejected. Thirty yards of penalties were enforced.
The original call was for Williams and Texas Tech’s No. 11 Dimitri Moore to be ejected, not Watkins.
“Jordan was not fighting,” Kiffin said.
Replays show Kiffin was correct. In fact, one of the Texas Tech coaches grabbed No. 11 and was chewing him out for getting ejected.
Kiffin argued the call vehemently. “Jordan shouldn’t have been thrown out,” he said. “It matters. The whole nation saw him get ejected. The kid has a family.”
At some point, an official told Kiffin that Watkins was not ejected and could play.
***Ole Miss went for it seven times on fourth down and made it just twice. Texas Tech was 5-for-6.
***Ole Miss’ leading receiver was Malik Heath, who transferred from Mississippi State for his senior season. He caught eight passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. He took some vicious hits, too, but kept playing.
***Texas Tech scored its final touchdown on the return of an onside kick. And an earlier score was thwarted by a terrific “effort” play by cornerback Miles Battle, who chased down a Texas Tech running back and punched the ball loose at the 2-yard line for a touchback.
Battle is in the portal and has been visiting other schools.
But the bottom line is, the Rebels finished 2022 with a loud thud. The winter will be a long one. ############