Mississippi stood in the crucible that was the Rebels’ football game with Kentucky, punch-drunk and looking for a place to fall down. Two hours later, they danced away from Lexington with a last-second, 37-34 victory that will take its place among a too-long list of Big Blue bitter memories.
In what has become the disturbing pattern of the 2017 football season, the Wildcats have played well enough to have won nine of 10 games, but they’ve won only six while losing three. That second number could be much larger.
In four of the six wins, the opposing team had a pass in the air as time expired that could have ruined the moment. Against Mississippi, the Cats played with fire one too many times. On this night, an inability to deliver a knockout punch cost them everything.
“We have three big games left and we’ve got to invest,” Mark Stoops said. “It should hurt a lot if you invest a lot. It hurts.”
Mississippi was hurting when the victory was there for the taking. The Wildcats had just driven 80 yards in only five plays, delivering the haymaker with a 46-yard touchdown strike to the gifted tight end, C.J. Conrad.
Perhaps the most vital cog in Kentucky’s blocking scheme last week in the win over Tennessee, Conrad re-materialized as a linebacker’s nightmare against the Rebels, scampering home for a 10-point lead.
It was the Wildcats’ first possession of the third quarter and it ended the same way as their last possession of the second quarter – in the end zone. An Ole Miss team that knows it won’t be heading for a bowl game, coached by a staff that has a pretty good idea they’ll be packing their collective bags at the end of the season, dutifully took their standing eight count.
But then Kentucky became just plain benevolent. The Wildcats’ defense held the Rebs on a rare three-and-out, but the offense went into a deep, deep slumber, settling for four straight three-and-outs of its own. It’s as though Kentucky rushed across the ring, administered smelling salts to Ole Miss, dashed cold water in its face and gave it an alcohol rubdown, inviting it right back into the fray.
The Rebels obliged.
Taking advantage of Kentucky’s hibernating offense, the Rebs went back to work, scoring 13 straight points and grabbing a 30-27 lead.
After the last of Kentucky’s fruitless offensive series, the UK defense forced an Ole Miss punt which, coupled with a penalty, pinned the Wildcats to their own five-yard line. Just in time, the slumbering offense awakened. The Cats sprang to life.
They ran 12 plays. Benny Snell carried the ball on nine of them, including gains of 19, 21, 13 and nine yards. Mix in an 18-yard completion to Lynn Bowden and suddenly, the Wildcats were a yard away from re-taking the lead. Snell saw to that.
A Kroger Field crowd that had been lulled into a stupor watching the Kentucky offense snore suddenly re-discovered its voice, roaring its approval. But whoever stuck around for the end of this one had to know: There was too much time left – two minutes, 14 seconds.
The Rebels needed 2:09.
They lurched down the field, fending off Kentucky blitzers. They survived a play that seemed essentially to end the game, quarterback Jordan Ta’amu fumbling the ball away, only to have it, upon further review, returned to the Rebels. “For a moment,” Stoops said, “there we were, all celebrating. We thought we had it won.”
Two plays later, Ta’amu lofted a perfect pass to wideout D.K. Metcalf in the corner of the end zone. Cornerback Lonnie Johnson, making his first start, leaped along with him, all but attaching himself to Metcalf’s chest. But it was Metcalf who made the grab, came down with at least one foot in the end zone and, upon further review, scoring the game-winner.
State school math tells us that had the Wildcats, on any one of those misspent offensive series, picked up just one first down, run just a few more plays, Ole Miss might not have had the time it needed to come all the way back.
The Rebels got up off the mat, swung from the heels and connected. Down goes Kentucky. And now it’s time for the Wildcats to clear their heads and come back, punching. Only, somewhere along the way, they need to develop a knockout blow – and learn to use it.