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Rebels collapse; Nutt's hot seat reaches boiling point

 

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Rumors, reports and all kinds of bad history abound in the wake of Ole Miss’ fourth-quarter collapse Saturday. 

With the 30-13 loss at Kentucky, the Rebels’ Southeastern Conference losing streak stands at 12 games, the longest in school history. And, for the first time since 1950, Ole Miss has lost to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season. 

Suffice to say, there’s uncertainty surrounding head coach Houston Nutt’s future, or lack thereof, in Oxford.

“I don’t know,” Nutt said of being the head coach at Ole Miss next year. “I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide. I would like to be. I plan on being. But that’s not for me to decide.”

Amid swirling speculation, Nutt again addressed his job status in his regularly scheduled weekly teleconference Sunday. He said nothing has changed; he has not met with Ole Miss administration, nor have any meetings been scheduled. He said that he will likely address his team regarding the rumors and reports. He will also undoubtedly be asked similar questions in his regularly scheduled weekly press conference today at 2 p.m.

As for the game Saturday, the Rebels (2-7, 0-6 SEC) clung to a 13-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter before the Wildcats (4-5, 1-4 SEC) scored 20 unanswered points to end the game. The Rebels, who had been outscored 61-0 in the third quarter of losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn, won the third-quarter battle Saturday. Junior quarterback Randall Mackey was a perfect 3-of-3 passing for 65 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Nickolas Brassell to give Ole Miss the lead in the third quarter. 

In a losing effort, Mackey threw for 197 yards on 14-of-29 passing with a touchdown, but he also threw an interception and was sacked three times.

In the fourth quarter, things unraveled for the Rebels. Kentucky outgained Ole Miss 152-78 and scored 20 unanswered points to erase the 13-10 deficit that had been built up in the first three quarters.

“We felt good about the sideline, everybody into it and making plays,” Nutt said of the second half. “We just didn’t make any in the fourth quarter to win this game, and that’s what’s really frustrating.

“I thought we really juiced up and went to another level in the third quarter. But bottom line, nothing is good enough when you don’t win. Everything looks a little bit worse when you don’t win.”

Kentucky put up big plays in the passing game in the fourth quarter. Freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith, making his first career start, connected with junior La’Rod King for a 38-yard touchdown pass, but the missed extra point gave the Wildcats just a 16-13 advantage. After trading punts, the Ole Miss offense looked to respond, but couldn’t get out of its own way with two holding penalties and a false start before giving the ball right back to the Kentucky offense.

“We had our chances to win the game before that,” Nutt said of the fourth quarter. “I thought we had our chances. We came out of the third quarter really well. We finally put together a drive in the third quarter and got ahead. We felt good about that. Then we had some critical, critical penalties that just cost you. I mean, that drive was to win the game. We’re moving the ball and that’s just frustrating.”

On the Wildcats’ next drive, Smith found King again for a 55-yard completion to set up first-and-goal from the Rebels’ six-yard line. Two plays later, Kentucky found the end zone on an eight-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Gene McCaskill to extend the lead to 23-13. For the game, Smith completed 19 of 36 passes for 283 yards with two touchdowns. He found success, especially late, with the deep ball against the Ole Miss secondary.

“I felt like that was the strength of this quarterback,” Nutt said. “When (Morgan) Newton went down and we found out (Maxwell Smith) was going to play, we knew that was his strength. Hand the ball off and throw a good deep ball. We knew they’d max everything up (in protection) and throw some one-on-one routes. We were trying to stop the run and try to get them off the field, but we were putting ourselves in some one-on-one situations.”

On their next possession, Ole Miss turned the ball over on downs deep in its own territory. Then two plays later, Kentucky junior running back CoShik Williams found the end zone for the second time of the game on a 10-yard touchdown run. Williams finished with 111 yards on 25 carries, including an eight-yard touchdown run to give the Wildcats a 7-6 lead in the second quarter. 

After the score, Mackey led a frantic drive down the field with a 37-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Collins Moore, followed by an 11-yard completion to junior tight end Jamal Mosley to move the ball inside the Wildcats’ 10-yard line. From there, however, the drive stalled and Ole Miss turned the ball over on downs for Kentucky to run out the clock.

On the stat sheet, it was an evenly played game. Kentucky converted 20 first downs, while Ole Miss converted 19. In total yardage, Kentucky outgained Ole Miss just 398-392. The difference in the game, however, was penalties and missed opportunities in the early going. 

The Rebels committed 11 penalties for 93 yards, including six penalties for 40 yards in the fourth quarter.

“When you’re good, you don’t have those penalties,” offensive coordinator David Lee said. “You have poise. You have experience. You have confidence. You sit there and you listen to your quarterback, and you go play. And we didn’t do it. To me, it was a direct result to losing the game.

“You have to score points and you can’t beat yourself,” Lee said. “And, today, I thought we beat ourselves.”

On the first two drives of the game, Ole Miss settled for two field goals before Kentucky responded with a touchdown and field goal in the second quarter. The first drive, which covered 66 yards in seven plays, ended when sophomore wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan dropped a would-be touchdown pass on third down. 

On the second drive, which covered 61 yards in 12 plays, the Rebels had a three-yard touchdown called back when freshman wide receiver Donte Moncrief was called for offensive pass interference.

“We stopped ourselves, really, and we had a touchdown called back,” Nutt said of the two drives.

For Nutt, his staff and his players, this fifth of November was not one to remember. It was another low point of a season high on drama, but short on results. And it doesn’t get any easier for Ole Miss. This Saturday, Ole Miss hosts Louisiana Tech, fresh off a 20-point win at Fresno State, followed by No. 1 LSU and then at Mississippi State to finish out the season.

“We were counting on a win here,” Nutt said of this past Saturday. “It’s been a tough year. It’s been a very difficult year. I’m sure Louisiana Tech will feel like they can go up and down the field on us, so we got to a great job.”