Ole Miss football bludgeons Central Arkansas, but a QB injury looms larger

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD − Ole Miss football gave its annual FCS opponent a taste of SEC football.

The Rebels defeated Central Arkansas 59-3 on Saturdaybehind a swarming defensive showing, some key special teams plays and a methodical offensive showing that broke out to a four-score lead in the first quarter. This is the first time Ole Miss (2-0) beat an opponent by 50 or more points since beating Fresno State by 52 points in 2015.

Quarterback Luke Altmyer started, completing six passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns and running for another, but was removed with an injury after a second-quarter interception by the Bears (0-2). USC transfer Jaxson Dart, who started the Rebels' win over Troy, replaced Altmyer and completed 10 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.

OUR PREDICTIONOle Miss vs. Central Arkansas: Who will win?

THE GOOD AND BADWhat Jaxson Dart did (and didn't do) well in his first Ole Miss start

The assessment on Altmyer

Altmyer's first career start began hot but quickly cooled off. He thrived in short-yardage situations in the first quarter, converting three red-zone trips into two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. But his play grew sloppier in the second quarter, with drives resulting in a turnover-on-downs, a punt and an interception leading to his removal.

Altmyer took a hard hit in the second quarter and appeared to hurt his shoulder. He was removed with what an Ole Miss spokesperson described as an "upper body injury" after throwing his interception and did not return. In Altmyer's absence, Dart's play improved compared to his debut. Dart looked poised and sharp on deep passes, his weakness a week ago, and was in rhythm with his receivers.

New tight end shows up and shows out

Tight end Michael Trigg, Dart's former USC teammate, broke out with three touchdowns, all of which from inside the red zone. Trigg caught his first two in the first quarter from Altmyer and another from Dart midway through the third.

All Ole Miss tight ends combined to catch two touchdowns in 2021, so Trigg's emergence as a red-zone threat is a huge asset for a team that finished No. 74 nationally in red zone touchdown percentage a year ago.

Special teams shows up

Coach Lane Kiffin was critical of Ole Miss' special teams in the opener. There wasn't much room for criticism in Week 2. In the first quarter, the Rebels returned a bad punt snap for a touchdown and blocked another punt to set up a touchdown. Then in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss forced another turnover on a punt. Transfer kicker Jonathan Cruz nailed a 41-yard kick at the end of the first half for his first field goal in an Ole Miss uniform.

The Rebels still have some question marks on special teams, including an unresolved battle at punt returner. But the specialists took a big step forward after a tough week, which is a cause for optimism.

Defense does its job

It's hard to tell too much about a defense when it's handling an overmatched opponent, but the Rebels' defense did its job, especially the transfer portal acquisitions. Khari Coleman followed his five tackles for loss and two sacks against Troy with 1.5 more TFLs and another half-sack, Troy Brown had two pass breakups, Isheem Young intercepted a pass, Jared Ivey had half a sack and JJ Pegues deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage.

The talent and depth was on display again. But let's not pretend this performance came against the caliber of opponent the Rebels are going to need to beat later in the season.

What's next?

Ole Miss returns to action next Saturday (2:30 p.m., ABC) against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Contact Nick Suss at nsuss@gannett.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.