Ole Miss vs. Louisville score, takeaways: Rebels light up Cardinals in Atlanta without coach Lane Kiffin
No Lane Kiffin, no problem for Ole Miss as it easily won its season opener over the Cardinals
Ole Miss brought the opening weekend of college football to a close on Monday night with a 43-24 victory over Louisville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. In a game that was never truly in doubt, the Rebels jumped out to a 26-0 lead by halftime and never looked back. Their dominant effort came with coach Lane Kiffin away from the team following a positive COVID-19 test, which made it all the more impressive for a program looking to take a step forward after last season's 5-5 campaign during Kiffin's first year.
Navigating the rigors of the SEC will bring challenges that Louisville could not provide, but Ole Miss demonstrated clear defensive improvement. Offensively, it picked up exactly where it left off last year with star quarterback Matt Corral lighting up the Cardinals' defense. The redshirt junior led two touchdown drives of at least 90 yards in the first half as the Rebels built an insurmountable lead. He finished the evening with 381 yards passing and a touchdown.
On both sides of the ball, the Rebels were just flat-out more physical than the Cardinals. Perhaps no individual play showed this more than running back Snoop Conner hitting the truck stick on his way for a touchdown in the second half.
Louisville scored on its final four possession of the game as quarterback Malik Cunningham settled in, but it wasn't enough to change the outcome for a Cardinals team seeking traction following last year's disappointing 4-7 effort.
What did we learn from tonight's game? Here are some takeaways from all the action.
1. Hello, Dontario Drummond
Elijah Moore caught a school-record 86 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games last season for Ole Miss before he was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft by the New York Jets. If he'd played a full season, Moore would likely have owned every major single-season receiving record in program history. In fact, Moore was such a focal point of the offense that he hauled in three times as many receptions (86) as the team's second-leading receiver (Jonathan Mingo -- 27). So how would the Rebels replace someone so important to their attack while maintaining -- or even improving upon -- last season's gaudy offensive statistics?
Dontario Drummond subtly began answering that question late last season as he caught touchdown passes in the team's final five games. That was capped by a six-reception, 110-yard outing in a 26-20 Outback Bowl win over Indiana. On Monday, he erased any doubt about his ability to take on the No. 1 receiving role, as he finished with nine catches for 177 yards and a touchdown while demonstrating elusive speed and sure hands. Matching Moore's production is an unreasonable expectation and the Rebels showed that there are plenty of quality targets on the roster. But Drummond is a star in the making and he's already validated Kiffin's lofty assessment that he is a potential first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
2. Ole Miss has a defense
Louisville's late adjustments paid off, and Ole Miss certainly did not look elite defensively over the last two quarters. However, the Rebels at least looked competent on that side of the ball. A competent defense paired with an elite offense should be enough to make them a dangerous team in the SEC West. We should know for certain how much better the defense is when it goes up against Alabama on Oct. 2 after giving up 63 points and 723 yards to the Crimson Tide last season.
The Rebels ranked 126th out of 127 FBS teams in total defense last season, allowing 519 yards per game and 38.3 points per game. They looked totally inept at times against an SEC-only schedule in the regular season. Vanderbilt was the only team that scored fewer than 24 points on Ole Miss last season ... and even the lowly Commodores managed 21 against the Rebels. Louisville, however, finished with just 355 total yards, which is fewer than what Ole Miss allowed in any game in 2020. Kiffin said this year's defense would be better, and that appeared to be true for defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin's group on Monday.
3. Louisville must rebuild its passing attack
The Cardinals, like Ole Miss, are replacing a lot of receiving production following the departure of last season's leading targets Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick. The top three receivers on the team's depth chart -- Justin Marshall, Jordan Watkins and Braden Smith -- accounted for just 42 catches last season. Their lack of chemistry with Cunningham showed in the first half as he completed just 5-of-13 passes for 17 yards and an interception. Cunningham looked like a different quarterback in the third quarter and the difference may have been that he started trusting his playmakers.
After entering the game with just eight career catches, redshirt senior Josh Johnson finished with six catches -- all of which came in the second half. Atwell and Fitzpatrick were Cunningham's top targets for two seasons, and adjusting to life without them is going to take time. Cunningham completed 17-of-24 passes for 174 in the second half, and a game against Eastern Kentucky of the FCS level on Saturday should provide the Cardinals a good chance to continue rebuilding their passing attack.
Ole Miss has a stud at WR
It sure looks like Dontario Drummond can emerge from the pack at WR as a breakout player and clear No. 1 target for Matt Corral. Lane Kiffin praised the senior wide out recently, even going so far as to say he believes Drummond could be a potential first round NFL draft pick next year, which seems like high praise for a player who made 25 catches last season. But he's proven deserving of the praise in this game with eight catches for 168 yards and a TD so far.
Louisville can exhale?
The Cardinals aren't going to win this game, but their fans can at least exhale knowing this team isn't as terrible as it looked in the first half. With the ACC looking like a total mess, they'll have an opportunity to win some games. Go ahead and circle the Sept. 17 game against UCF as a big one. I would've told you before the season that a split with Ole Miss and UCF would be a reasonable aspiration for this team. That's still on the table, and if you get that done, a bowl game remains a reasonable goal.
Odd reality for Matt Corral
Matt Corral still doesn't have a touchdown pass in this game, despite having thrown for over 350 yards and despite the fact that Ole Miss has scored four touchdowns. Can't win the Heisman if you don't have any touchdown passes on your ledger! In all seriousness, this would be his first game since November of 2019 without a TD pass. He threw two or more in all but one game last season and had 29 for the season
Truck stick by Snoop Conner!
My, oh my, Snoop Conner just cemented the outcome by laying the smackdown on Louisville corner Chandler Jones on his way to the end zone. That 11-yard TD run should eliminate any lingering drama from this one. Just a brutal run there for Conner that shows you this Ole Miss offense is certainly no finesse attack. It's now 36-10 Rebels with 14:11 to go. Conner has by far been the most effective of the three running backs who have played tonight for Ole Miss.
Dontario Drummond is here!
He closed the 2020 season strong and is picking up where he left off. The Ole Miss receiver has been everywhere tonight, and he's got a great rapport with Matt Corral. Just made a nice diving catch to put the Rebels in the red zone heading to the fourth quarter. Ole Miss can put it away with a score. Louisville will have nightmares over that first half, because the teams actually looked evenly matched in the third quarter.
Louisville's best drive results in a TD
The Cardinals finally put together a real drive capped by a Braden Smith touchdown reception from Malik Cunningham. (No long kickoff return to get it started, no 15-yard Ole Miss penalties to keep it going). It totaled 13 plays and 70 and looked like a totally different team compared to the first half. Cunningham was a different QB on that series, and now it's 29-10 late in the third quarter. All of the sudden, Cunningham's stat-line looks a little bit less atrocious: 13-of-23, 85 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT and it feels like Louisville has found its footing.
Ole Miss touchdown wiped off
An illegal player down field penalty wipes out an Ole Miss touchdown and forces the Rebels to settle for a field goal that makes it 29-3. The wiped out TD was a nifty fake QB draw + flip pass to the RB Jerrion Ealy. Was a nice play call, and a shame for Ole Miss the creativity went to waste. But they answer the Louisville FG and are back up by 26 midway through the third quarter.
Louisville gets on the board
The Cardinals cut it to 26-3 thanks to a Hassan Hall 59-yard kickoff return to begin the second half. That will help make up for Hall's dropped pitch that cost Louisville a scoring opportunity in the first half. Ultimately, though, a holding call ruined the Cardinals' chances of getting in the end zone there. But at least Malik Cunningham completed a couple of passes and is no longer the team's leading receiver for the game. The three points are nice, but Louisville is going to need a pick-six or something really dramatic to actually get some momentum here.