NEW ORLEANS — The Sugar Bowl was a lot more bitter than sweet for the Ole Miss football team.
No. 8 Ole Miss lost 21-7 versus No. 6 Baylor to end the Rebels’ storybook season. Quarterback Matt Corral left the game with an apparent 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 with one touchdown and two interceptions, one returned 96 yards for a Bears touchdown.
Ole Miss’ defense stepped up amid the offense’s struggles. The Rebels didn’t allow Baylor’s offense to score until the fourth quarter, holding the Bears to 7-for-17 on third and fourth downs and limiting Baylor to 40 passing yards.
Here are the Clarion Ledger’s takeaways from the Sugar Bowl:
Corral was injured when he was sacked with 2:13 left in the first quarter. He walked off the field under his own power but then was carted back to the locker room.
“It makes you sick to your stomach,” ESPN broadcaster Greg McElroy said during the broadcast as Corral was on the field in pain after the injury.
Before coming out of the game, Corral was 2-for-6 passing for 10 yards with one interception along with 17 rushing yards on seven carries.
ESPN reported in the second quarter that Corral was doubtful to return, a fact that was seemingly confirmed when he returned to the sideline later in the quarter on crutches. He received a rousing ovation from the fans in New Orleans when he came back out of the locker room.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said after the game that Corral’s X-ray “was negative” but the quarterback “just wasn’t able to go.”
Corral’s choice to play in the Sugar Bowl instead of opting out and preparing for the NFL draft – where he has been projected by many to be a first-round pick – is one that will be dissected for months. But put that aside for the time being.
Corral finishes his Ole Miss career as one of the best and most revered quarterbacks in school history. In two seasons under 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, he’s still likely to be Ole Miss’ first quarterback picked in the first round of the NFL draft since Eli Manning went first overall in 2004.
“He’s been unbelievable and the things you don’t see besides the playing, just how he is. I had a cool moment this morning in the team meeting, just listening to him talk,” Kiffin said of Corral. “I told our own coaches and players: You can be a freshman and you’re supposed to listen to the leaders. You can be a 50-year-old coach and you should listen to this guy.
“I mean, what he said today to the team about after last season, after the Outback Bowl, and all he wanted to do was come back and impact players the way that Elijah Moore impacted him off the field as a person. He’s just real special, and he is going to make a great NFL player and do great for a franchise.”
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.
All things consider, 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 year, 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.
Saturday night 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.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.
Contributing: Erik Hall, Jace Evans