Landsharks are back. How Ole Miss football's defense willed the Rebels to win vs. Kentucky

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD − Jaxson Dart needs a manicure.

No. 11 Ole Miss football remained unbeaten Saturday with a 22-19 win over No. 8 Kentucky. Mainly because of another dynamic performance by the Rebels' defense, not because of Dart and the offense.

With a minute left in the game, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis connected for a 51-yard gain with receiver Barion Brown, putting the Wildcats on Ole Miss' 7-yard line. On the ensuing play, Kentucky appeared to throw the go-ahead touchdown, but it was called back because a pre-snap illegal motion penalty.

After the penalty, junior defensive end Jared Ivey made the play of his life, fighting through a chip block and screaming off the edge to strip the ball out of Levis' hand. Senior Tavius Robinson fell on the fumble. Kentucky was out of timeouts. The Rebels won.

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All the while, Dart watched nervously from the sideline.

"I was biting my nails," Dart said. "I was going pretty hard on my nails."

Cuticles aside, Dart and the Rebels' offense owe a huge debt to the defensive performance. Kentucky crossed the 50-yard line into Ole Miss territory three times trailing by three points in the fourth quarter alone and came up scoreless each time. Safety Otis Reese broke up a pass to cause a turnover on downs with 14:55 left, linebacker Austin Keys stripped Levis on a scramble up the middle inside the red zone with 2:55 to go and Ivey iced the game with 51 seconds remaining.

Kentucky mustered 328 yards of offense, completed 75% of its passes, converted half its third and fourth downs and held the ball for more than 36 minutes. But it didn't end up mattering as the Rebels' swarming defense notched nine tackles for loss, three sacks, two turnovers, a turnover on downs and a safety.

Even as Ole Miss' high-powered offense was held motionless for most of the second half, the defense kept things alive. Which is becoming a trend.

Over a span of 10 games dating back to last season, Ole Miss' defense is allowing 15.1 points and 360.6 yards per game with 16 turnovers forced, 62 tackles for loss and 31 sacks. For a unit that allowed 33.7 points and 466.2 yards per game over a span of five years between 2016 and 2020, this turnaround from conference pushover to the kind of defense that can single-handedly win a game against an SEC opponent ranked in the top-10 is hard to overvalue.

"We have our winning edges," Ivey said. "One of them is, 'Give us an inch, we’ll take it.' In any circumstance, whatever they give us, whatever goes down, we’ll take it and we’ll try our hardest to make it right."

It was easy to write Ole Miss' early-season defensive successes off as a massive talent advantage throughout September. Holding Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Tulsa to 10 points per game isn't much of a feat. But Kentucky has a quarterback projected to be picked in the top 10 in the 2023 NFL Draft, a running back who was named preseason first-team All-SEC and three top-notch receivers.

The Rebels bend-don't-break'ed their way to being the first team to hold the Wildcats below 20 points in their last 10 games.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin won't make any sweeping generalizations after the win. He knows that forced fumbles and fourth-down stops are great plays, but when both teams are that close to winning, it means your team was one or two breaks away from losing.

Still, Kiffin is proud of the growth his defense is experiencing under new defensive coordinator Chris Partridge.

"I think they really believe," Kiffin said. "They play really hard. We didn't, because of their base playbook, rotate many guys today. So a lot of them played the whole game for the most part in the back seven. Chris has done a great job. He rallied the guys."

Contact Nick Suss at nsuss@gannett.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.