With Matt Corral injured, Ole Miss football falls in Sugar Bowl vs Baylor

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

NEW ORLEANS — The Sugar Bowl was a lot more bitter than sweet for Ole Miss football.

No. 8 Ole Miss lost 21-7 versus No. 6 Baylor on Saturday at Caesars Superdome to end the Rebels' storybook season. Quarterback Matt Corral left the game with an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return, limiting what Ole Miss' offense could do and squandering a dominant performance from the Rebels' defense.

Freshman Luke Altmyer relieved Corral. Playing in his fifth career game, Altmyer completed 12 of 25 passes for 174 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, one returned 96 yards for a touchdown. Altmyer's interception came on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage.  

Ole Miss' defense stepped up amid the offensive struggles. The Rebels (10-3) didn't allow Baylor's offense to score until the fourth quarter, holding the Bears (12-2) to 7-for-17 on third and fourth downs and limiting Baylor to 40 passing yards. 

REPORT CARD:Report card: Ole Miss offense with Luke Altmyer gets C- vs Baylor in Sugar Bowl

GRIMY, NASTY FOOTBALL:How transfer Jake Springer transformed Ole Miss defense

THE TURNAROUND:Ole Miss football coaches explain how defense transformed from liability to strength in 2021

One last hurrah for Matt Corral

Corral's choice to play in the Sugar Bowl instead of opting out and preparing for the NFL Draft is one that will be dissected for months. Put that aside for the time being.

Corral finishes his Ole Miss career one of the best and most revered quarterbacks in school history. In two seasons under coach Lane Kiffin, he threw for 6,686 yards and 49 touchdowns and ran for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns. He gutted through injury to lead the Rebels to the first 10-win regular season in school history and, even with his Sugar Bowl injury, is likely to be Ole Miss' first quarterback picked in the first round of an NFL Draft since Eli Manning. 

There will be plenty of time to discuss his injury and his draft status and the importance of playing in bowl games down the line. For now, just appreciate Corral's time in Oxford and the 2021 season he engineered.

What did we learn about Altmyer?

All things considered, Altmyer looked good. He underthrew a couple of deep balls and his timing wasn't perfect. But he got better as the game went on and made some truly impressive throws down the stretch, including his 37-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Sanders on a beauty of a fly route against single coverage. 

Not every game plan fits every quarterback. Altmyer isn't just less experienced than Corral. He's a different quarterback with different strengths. Plays and concepts that work for Corral aren't guaranteed to fit what Altmyer can do. So playing in what almost assuredly had to be a stripped-down version of the offense, Altmyer still made things happen.

With Corral gone next season, Ole Miss is still probably going to look for a viable replacement in the transfer portal. But Altmyer proved Kiffin and new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr., do have something to work with if he needs to be the guy.

That defense can play

Saturday was a culmination of Ole Miss' season-long defensive transformation. Baylor's offense was never in rhythm. The Bears had a few long runs but only sustained one drive longer than six plays. 

It wasn't a normal kind of defensive dominance. No sacks. One tackle for loss. One turnover. Ole Miss mostly won by stuffing the Bears on third and fourth downs. Baylor turned the ball over on downs twice and only entered the red zone on a drive coming off an Altmyer interception returned to the 15-yard line.

Missing the kicker

Freshman kicker Caden Costa missed his second straight game as he continues to appeal an NCAA suspension related to testing positive for a banned substance. Costa was a reliable 14-for-17 on the season. His replacement didn't have the same luck Saturday.

Cale Nation missed two field goals, a 49-yard kick in the first quarter and a 35-yard attempt in the fourth quarter. The first-quarter try was way short and the fourth-quarter try narrowly missed wide. Both kicks would've given Ole Miss a lead.

Costa's suspension isn't supposed to extend into next season, and that looks like good news.

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.