As Matt Corral's tenure ends, Ole Miss glimpses potential future with QB Luke Altmyer

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

NEW ORLEANS — With a wiggle of his shoulders, Matt Corral subtly ball-faked downfield.

It was third-and-20 in the first quarter of the 2022 Sugar Bowl. Two Baylor pass rushers were invading the Ole Miss quarterback's personal space. Ball faking bought him enough time to escape to the left of the pocket. But Baylor defensive lineman Cole Maxwell got a paw around Corral's waist and dragged him down, falling on Corral's right leg in the process.

Less than a second later, Baylor linebacker Bryson Jackson chipped Ole Miss tackle Nick Broeker from behind. Broeker fell onto Maxwell, who was still on Corral's leg.

Corral writhed in pain. He slapped the ground. He tried to crawl off the field. He couldn't. The athletic trainers came to check on him. He clearly wasn't OK. He tried to limp off the field. Again, he couldn't. With his arms around two trainers' shoulders, he hopped off the field on his left leg. Minutes later, he was on a cart headed back to the locker room for x-rays.

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

'I WAS REALLY HURTING FOR HIM:' What Lane Kiffin said about Matt Corral, Sugar Bowl loss

Thus ended one of the most impressive and productive careers in Ole Miss history. Corral did not return in Ole Miss' 21-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Baylor. The Rebels (10-3) scored their fewest points and gained their second fewest yards of the Lane Kiffin era without him, turning to true freshman quarterback Luke Altmyer for stability.

Corral was Ole Miss' anchor. Through pain and injuries and adversity and nine-straight games in the heart of an SEC schedule, Corral led the team. To lose him in the biggest game of the year felt like a karmic imbalance.

"My mind raced with a lot of thoughts right there," Kiffin said. "And that's just for my love for him, just like I would if it was my own son in that situation. So maybe I didn't do a great enough job with the team because I was really hurting for him in that situation because I know how much he's put into it, how much it means to him. And for that to be taken away like that really sucks."

With a wiggle and a paw and a chip and two falls, one great Ole Miss career ended. And another narrative began.

Before Saturday, Altmyer had thrown nine collegiate passes. The former four-star recruit from Starkville High School threw 29 passes Saturday, completing 15 for 174 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.

The bright spots were bright. His 37-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Sanders down the sideline against single coverage was about as perfect as a throw can be. The way he escaped end zone pressure on a 3rd-and-7 while keeping his eyes downfield to find Dontario Drummond for a 29-yard gain. The way he used his legs to convert a second quarter 4th-and-4 and used his arm to convert a third quarter 4th-and-7. 

But the lows were low too. He barely completed half of his passes. He had trouble feeling pressure and avoiding sacks. He underthrew some deep balls. He didn't have Corral's timing with receivers over the middle or Corral's ability to make defenders miss in space. On a night where the running game wasn't working up to its normal standard, Altmyer showed he's not ready yet to win a game on his own.

"That's a very difficult situation for any backup quarterback, especially a freshman, to go into in a Sugar Bowl versus a really good defense," Kiffin said. "It's not like we were lighting it up before he went in. We were struggling before."

Ole Miss has a decision to make at quarterback next year. Altmyer and redshirt sophomore Kinkead Dent are the only returning scholarship quarterbacks, not counting receiver convert John Rhys Plumlee. Even if Altmyer is Corral's heir, the Rebels need more bodies in that room and the transfer portal is practically begging Ole Miss to pluck a quarterback or two from its grasp.

Kiffin was asked twice after Saturday's game if Altmyer's performance gave him reason to believe Altmyer could be the long-term answer at quarterback. He eventually said yes on second ask, but spent the entirety of that answer talking about how good Baylor is instead of evaluating Altmyer's day.

Altmyer has a lot of growth ahead of him. Kiffin and newly-hired offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr., have a lot of time to figure out how to harness his skills or to look elsewhere.

The one guarantee is that the man Altmyer replaced, the one whose Ole Miss career ended with him wincing in pain and having to watch the New Year's Six berth he earned flitter away from the sidelines, he won't be coming back. Without him — even having seen Altmyer's audition Saturday — it's hard to say we know anything about how good the Ole Miss offense can be next year.

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