Ole Miss football handles Troy in opener but Jaxson Dart leaves door open in QB battle
OXFORD − Lane Kiffin's third season as Ole Miss football coach started with an easy but indecisive win.
The Rebels defeated Troy 28-10 on Saturday, relying on a dominant rushing attack and a stingy defense that lived in the Trojans backfield. Ole Miss (1-0) started USC transfer Jaxson Dart at quarterback and Dart threw for 154 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but the running game stole the show. The Rebels rushed for 266 yards and three touchdowns, their most rushing yards in a season-opener since 2015.
Dart was replaced with fellow sophomore Luke Altmyer in the fourth quarter. Altmyer threw for 13 yards on two tries.
Ole Miss' defense held Troy to 4.3 yards per play and made 10 tackles for loss. Cornerback Miles Battle logged the Rebels' first interception of the season, safety Isheem Young recovered a fourth-quarter fumble and the Rebels forced two turnovers on downs.
Dart plays OK, doesn't decisively win starting job
Dart played every significant snap behind center until the fourth quarter but didn't show off the dominant traits that had him ranked as a five-star caliber recruit in the transfer portal. He overthrew some deep passes, made the wrong read on a couple of run-pass options and was handcuffed by primarily throwing screen passes and check-downs when he was asked to pass.
The announcers on the SEC Network broadcast reported that Ole Miss is expected to start sophomore Luke Altmyer at quarterback next week as a way of gauging his potential before making a solid decision about who to start. Dart didn't do anything Saturday to dissuade Kiffin from trying that strategy; he played well but didn't make too many "wow" plays and missed a few open opportunities downfield, especially in the first half.
Offense opts for ground and pound
Dart handled the quarterbacking, but the Rebels running backs carried the offense. TCU transfer Zach Evans ran for more than 100 yards in the first half and finished with 130 yards and a fumble.SMU transfer Ulysses Bentley IV scored the first touchdown of the game by keeping his balance after being hit in the backfield and rolling over his would-be tackler for a score. And freshman Quinshon Judkins proved hard to take down, running 14 times for 87 yards and a score.
After losing Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and Henry Parrish from last year's rushing attack, Ole Miss looks even better with its three newcomers. Despite near-constant shuffling and rotation on the offensive line and a less-than-stellar passing performance, the Rebels moved the ball with ease because of their talented stable of backs, which bodes well for the team moving forward assuming the passing attack stabilizes.
The transfer linebackers take hold
Last season, transfer linebackers Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson parlayed dominant seasons into being picked in the NFL Draft. Saturday, a new pair of transfer linebackers emerged as Ole Miss' new run-stop specialists.
Central Michigan transfer Troy Brown made 11 tackles, while Coleman registered eight tackles with five tackles for loss and two sacks. Coleman's five tackles for loss tie him for the most for Ole Miss in a game since 1999.
One good game isn't a large enough sample to start comparing Brown and Coleman to Campbell and Robinson. But Troy's early game plan was mostly built around running at the Rebels linebackers, and the newcomers made Troy retreat from that plan by the second quarter.
Let's hear it for the freshmen
Judkins wasn't the only true freshman who showed out Saturday. Cornerback Davison Igbinosun earned a start in his first collegiate game after an impressive preseason and rewarded the coaches' decision with two drive-ending third-down tackles. He finished with five tackles.
So much focus this offseason was devoted to the Ole Miss transfer portal signing class, and for good reason. But the way the Rebels' two most impressive freshmen played proves there's still some space for Kiffin and company to recruit the old-fashioned way and get three or four great years out of a top talent.
Ole Miss returns to action next Saturday when the Rebels host Central Arkansas (6 p.m., SEC Network+).
Contact Nick Suss at email@example.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.