From Billy Cannon’s legendary punt return to Les Miles calling a quarterback spike with only one second left, one never knows what to expect when the Tigers and Rebels come together. The history of the LSU/Ole Miss rivalry tells us to expect the unexpected. Ole Miss will be in desperation mode to keep pace in the SEC West after losing their first divisional game to Alabama. LSU is trying to build off another win while keeping hope alive to reach the college football playoff. Consider the stakes of this game as seasoning that goes in the pot that is a rowdy Vaught-Hemingway stadium. Mix it all in, and the results could be another classic between these two rivals.
Ole Miss is in familiar territory in terms of beating the teams that they should and trying to prove themselves against the better teams in the conference. The difference in 2023 is the route they’ve taken to get there.
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin predicates his offense on running the ball with success. His big passing plays, RPO’s, and even some of his trick plays are set up by effective runs. Ole Miss was first in the conference in rushing yards per game in 2022. They’re 10th in the same category this year. So how are they winning?
Rowdy Rebel Ringleader
Jaxson Dart fought off multiple transfer portal quarterbacks, including multi-year starter Spencer Sanders and former LSU home-grown talent Walker Howard. Dart not only kept his job but has excelled as a passer. Ole Miss is fifth in the league in passing yards while Dart has thrown only two interceptions all year. Dart also decided he would lead the team in rushing for good measure.
Dart’s mobility could be an issue for an LSU defense that generated pressure at times against Arkansas but could not get to KJ Jefferson. He routinely bought time and hurt LSU with big plays. Dart is not the physical freak that Jefferson is, but he’s elusive and keeps his eyes down the field. Brian Kelly spoke on the strengths of Dart earlier this week.
“Dart’s been a resilient, tough, physical quarterback. He’s thrown for over a thousand, and he’s rushing the football as well,” said Kelly regarding Dart.
If you follow Ole Miss football, you could be wondering 1) How are they only 10th in the conference in rushing? And 2) Why is Dart leading the team in rushing? Ole Miss’s Quinshon Judkins has been battling injuries all year. The returning sophomore All-SEC back has been limited but showed signs of returning to his old form against Alabama. Judkins averaged over four yards per carry and attributed his production to better health.
“I was healthier this past week than I’ve been this season, following the injury I had,” Judkins told the media this week.
The Tigers were better in their run fits defensively last week but still allowed Arkansas’s Rashod Dubinion to run for 78 yards on 15 carries last week. No offense to Dubinion, but if you don’t know who he is then the point is made. The LSU defense has looked great against the run at times but has yet to prove it can stop the run consistently.
Can Ole Miss Stop the LSU Offense?
Defensively, the Rebels are similar to LSU in that they took transfers from multiple levels of college football to fill out their secondary. The stats reflect those similarities with Ole Miss allowing 226 passing yards per game compared to LSU’s 228. The difference is that the Ole Miss receivers are different than the big-bodied receivers who have given LSU so many problems this year. The Rebels have multiple sub-six-foot receivers who are talented but don’t present the intimidating mismatches of the giants of Florida State and Arkansas. As usual, the Tigers will present more threats on the perimeter than their opposition in this contest. The extra defensive attention that Malik Nabers brings to himself has given Jayden Daniels more incentive to find Brian Thomas in single coverage. Thomas has rewarded Daniels with five receiving touchdowns, tying for second in the conference.
The LSU running game has improved weekly with the emergence of Logan Diggs. Diggs’ production has taken the pressure off Daniels to be the biggest running threat for the Tigers. It’s hard to gauge the coaches’ trust in freshman Kaleb Jackson to hand him the ball in such a hostile environment, but he’s proven that he can provide a spark in the rushing attack. Besides that, the Rebels’ run defense isn’t great, giving up 125 yards per game. Jase McClellan of Alabama didn’t help that average last week when he rushed for 105 yards on only 17 carries.
These are two teams with more commonalities than many would realize. Explosive. Susceptible to the run. High-level quarterbacks. There’s a reason the spread is only 2.5 points in favor of LSU. This game could be decided by a timely turnover, an unexpected contributor, or a lucky bounce of the ball. If there’s anything this rivalry has taught fans, it’s to expect the unexpected.