Pass rush, protection will be key for Ole Miss and Kentucky in top-15 matchup

Sep. 29—OXFORD — It wasn't history Ole Miss necessarily wanted to make.

For just the second time under head coach Lane Kiffin, the Rebels failed to register a sack in a 35-27 win over Tulsa last weekend. The pressure was there — 22 quarterback hurries is no small tally — but Golden Hurricane backup quarterback Braylon Braxton had a knack for escaping and making plays.

No. 14 Ole Miss (4-0) entered last week's matchup tied for fifth in college football with 4.3 sacks per game. A pass rush that flustered opposing passers was a big reason the Rebels' defense had been so effective against opposing quarterbacks. But while Braxton didn't put up huge passing stats (83 yards, one touchdown, one interception), he kept plays alive and took off when he needed to.

That's why Saturday's premier matchup against No. 7 Kentucky, led by quarterback Will Levis, could come down to a battle of the pass rushes.

The Wildcats (4-0) have given up 16 sacks already this season — tied for 127th of 131 teams — despite Levis' supreme athleticism. Kentucky gave up 25 sacks all of last season, due in no small part to a veteran offensive line led by All-American tackle Darian Kinnard, now of the Kansas City Chiefs. Three starters from that offensive line are gone, however, and the Wildcats are experiencing growing pains. Levis was sacked five times in a 31-23 win over Northern Illinois.

Much of Levis' success through the air comes by way of play-action passing. He's attempted 82 of his 117 passes and thrown eight of 10 touchdowns via play-action, according to PFF. Kentucky is among the worst rushing teams in the country at the moment (star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. does return this week, though), so this game very well might hinge on clamping down a stagnant Wildcat rushing attack and staying after Levis despite any fakes.

The Rebels' leader in sacks is junior linebacker Khari Coleman (2.5), who did not play against Tulsa. Should he return, it would no doubt be a boost. But even if he doesn't, the Rebels have plenty of capable pass rushers; 11 other Ole Miss defenders have at least 1/2 sack this season, and eight players have a PFF pass rush grade of at least 70.

On the flip side is the Kentucky pass rush, which has taken a step back in 2022 from where it was last season. The Wildcats were in the middle of the pack in 2021, ranking 65th nationally with 2.2 sacks per game (29 total); Kentucky is down to 1.5 per game through four contests (six total).

It's one of only a few spots the Wildcats' defense doesn't rank highly in, as they're ranked in the top-35 nationally in scoring defense, passing yards, rushing yards and total yards allowed. Some of that might be by design, though — Kentucky Sports Radio's Adam Luckett told the Daily Journal that the Wildcats' defense, "has been a zone-heavy defense that hangs its hat on big-play prevention. The Wildcats look for length and girth on the recruiting trail to play on their three-down front and typically will not gamble too much in order to keep everything in front."

Joshua Paschal (five sacks, 15 tackles for loss last season) was a second-round pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft, and last season's sack leader J.J. Weaver (6.5) has just one sack so far. Weaver did not play against Northern Illinois due to injury, according to the Courier-Journal.

The Rebels have given up just two sacks this season, though pass blocking hasn't been perfect. Two Ole Miss starting linemen — tackle Jayden Williams and guard Eli Acker — have PFF pass blocking grades above 70. Sophomore quarterback Jaxson Dart is stellar at evading rushers and making plays inside and outside of the pocket when things break down, as he's completing 56% of his passes under pressure (Levis is at 46%) and 64% of his passes when blitzed, per PFF.

If the Rebels can keep Dart clean (not including designed runs, of course), Ole Miss should be able to get some things done offensively.

MICHAEL KATZ is the Ole Miss athletics reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at michael.katz@djournal.com.