OXFORD, Miss. — Lane Kiffin has won his share of big games thanks to his explosive offenses.
But on Saturday, Ole Miss‘ defense shut down No. 7 Kentucky and top NFL quarterback prospect Will Levis for a 22-19 victory at a sold-out Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the Rebels’ first win over an AP Top-10 opponent since 2016.
“That’s pretty good defense, to hold them to 19 points when they’ve got the first pick in the draft,” Kiffin said of Levis, who was forced into fumbles on each of the Wildcats’ final two drives.
Levis, ranked No. 4 overall in Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board of the top prospects for the 2023 NFL draft, was stripped of the football by Ole Miss defensive end Jared Ivey just as Levis was about to throw from the pocket inside the final minute. Tavius Robinson was there to recover for the Rebels after the Wildcats had moved to the Ole Miss 8-yard line, and at one point, had a first-and-goal.
“We put it on the D-line that last drive and said, ‘You guys take this thing over’,” Kiffin said. “That was good to see.”
Ole Miss is off to its first 5-0 start since 2014, and while Kiffin is widely regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football, it’s his defense that has made the difference going back to last season. The Rebels have held nine of their past 10 opponents to 21 or fewer points.
Through five games, Ole Miss has allowed just 59 points, the second fewest allowed by the Rebels through the first five games of a season over the past 30 years.
Twice in the last three minutes Saturday, Ole Miss’ defense produced the kinds of plays that keep a team in the championship conversation. Austin Keys knocked the ball loose from Levis on a third-and-2 play from the Ole Miss 19-yard line. Levis had the first down, but the ball was jarred loose before he was down.
The Wildcats had one more chance after Barion Brown‘s 51-yard catch and run moved the ball inside the 10. But once again, with Ole Miss’ defense in the shadow of its own goal line, Ivey made another game-saving play.
“People have got to rise up and people have got to make plays, and it was cool because the defense made that [first] play and somebody might say, ‘OK, we won the game,'” Kiffin said. “But no, there were still two and a half minutes left, and they did it again, which was huge.”
Few teams in the country have improved defensively the way Ole Miss has from Kiffin’s first season in 2020. The Rebels finished 117th nationally in scoring defense (38.3 points per game) and 126th nationally in total defense (519 yards per game) that first year. A year ago, Ole Miss improved to 24.7 points per game in scoring defense and is giving up just 11.8 points per game through five contests this season. D.J. Durkin left following last season to be the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, but co-coordinator Chris Partridge stayed on and took over playcalling duties.
Playing more three-man fronts on defense this season, the Rebels pressured Levis relentlessly and sacked him three times, one of those resulting in a safety after he was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone in the second quarter. Ole Miss now has 37 tackles for loss this season.
“We’ve not all of a sudden got it figured out,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m excited to get back to it and excited we’re still undefeated.”