JOE COX: Ole Miss Is A Passing Fancy As Kentucky Looks To Grind Out 7th Victory Saturday
For those who pine for the missing days of former UK coach Hal Mumme, relief is coming to town. No, the Wildcats are still going to rely heavily on a ground-based attack, but the visiting Ole Miss Rebels (3-5) will sling the ball around Kroger Field enough to keep passing game aficionados happy.
Kentucky clinched bowl eligibility last weekend, winning 29-26 despite going minus 4 on turnovers and being outgained by 74 yards by Tennessee. It was the first time since 2007 that Kentucky was bowl eligible in October. The Wildcats are still eyeing eight (or more) regular season wins, a goal the Wildcats haven’t reached since Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 team. Standing in their way are the pass-heavy Rebels from Mississippi.
Who They Are
Ole Miss is a team of extremes. They lead the SEC in passing (338 yards per game), are fourth in total yardage (461 yards per game), but are dead last in scoring defense (37.5 points per game) and defensive yardage (468 yards per game allowed). Sophomore QB Shea Patterson was supposed to key the Ole Miss attack, but he was lost for the season in the LSU game due to a leg injury.
Back-up Jordan Ta’amu has played well, passing for 446 yards on 41 attempts, and also rushing for 8.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He’s not as polished as Patterson, but he is talented. The Rebel running game is 13th in the SEC, although running back Jordan Wilkins is a player to watch.
The Ole Miss receiving corps might be the best in the league, with sophomore A.J. Brown leading the SEC in catches (41), yards (765), and being second in receiving touchdowns (6). Receivers DaMarkus Lodge (511 yards, 6 TDs) and D.K. Metcalf (479 yards, 4 TDs) are also big play threats.
Kicker Gary Wunderlich has struggled, failing to hit a field goal longer than 39 yards this year and missing two extra points. Return man Jaylon Jones is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the SEC.
Defensively, Ole Miss allows 5.7 yards per carry. Senior DeMarquis Gates is second in the SEC in tackles with 72, including nine tackles for loss, which is fifth best in the conference. Marquis Haynes has 6.5 sacks, which is third best in the SEC. The Rebels have only five interceptions, with junior Javien Hamilton grabbing three.
Where Kentucky Is
Last week, the power running of Benny Snell re-surfaced after a fairly silent 2017 season. A season high 180 yards places Snell third in the SEC on the season in rushing yards (721), and fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns (9). A big week against the 13th rushing defense in the SEC (UT allows 252 yards per game on the ground) would seem to forecast a big one against the 14th rushing defense (261 per game for Ole Miss).
Kentucky’s passing game was very hit and miss, but Stephen Johnson hurt UT on the ground as well as in the air. With his left shoulder injury, UK may be a little more reluctant to place Johnson in harm’s way, but time will tell.
After a week of going minus 4 on turnovers, Kentucky should be in better shape against Ole Miss. The Rebels are 13th in the SEC in turnover margin, committing 13 turnovers and forcing only seven. Even after a horrid performance last week, Kentucky is still plus 2 for the season.
The move of Lonnie Johnson into the lineup in place of Chris Westry suggests that Kentucky knows it doesn’t need another Missouri-type performance from the defense. Ole Miss will give the UK secondary some headaches. But the Wildcats figure to pound it on the ground, and much like last week, Ole Miss might win the yardage battle, but the UK defense will tighten in the red zone, and bring home yet another “ugly” win.
UK 35, Ole Miss 31
Other SEC Predictions
Who else do I like in this up and down SEC week?
Mississippi State 51, UMass 10
Florida 24, Missouri 21
Auburn 35, Texas A&M 24
Western Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 21
Georgia 35, South Carolina 17
Arkansas 45, Coastal Carolina 14
Tennessee 24, Southern Miss 23
Alabama 42, LSU 20
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.