3 takeaways: Will Levis, Kentucky football fumble away golden opportunity at Ole Miss

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

OXFORD, Mississippi — The lasting, lopsided image of the Kentucky football team’s visit here on Saturday might be of quarterback Will Levis’ left hand, injured and crooked as he came off the field in the first half. 

It epitomized No. 7 Kentucky’s ongoing struggles to protect its top NFL prospect, a Big Blue bugaboo that bubbled up again at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday in a 22-19 loss to No. 14 Ole Miss

And ultimately a sack doomed the Cats late. 

Levis fumbled on a sack at the Ole Miss 25-yard line with 51 seconds to play, all but sealing the Rebels’ win. It was his second fourth-quarter fumble, the first coming on a QB run with 2:55 to play. 

The Rebels (5-0, 1-0 SEC) recovered both fumbles. 

The loss was Kentucky's 15th straight on the road against SEC West opponents. UK coach Mark Stoops is 0-11 in road games against the SEC West.

Kentucky had a chance after Levis hit wide receiver Barion Brown with a short pass that turned into a big gain. But an illegal motion penalty on UK nullified Levis’ 7-yard touchdown pass to freshman Dane Key

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Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels running back Quinshon Judkins (4) runs the ball for a 48-yard touchdown during the first quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Levis was sacked three times and hurried once, but the numbers didn’t speak to how little time he had to make plays in the pocket. On one second-quarter play — taking the ball in the shadow of his own goal post — Levis sought to make a play and held the ball too long. 

The result was a throwaway that led to an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone — a safety and two points for Ole Miss. 

Levis was 18 for 24 passing for 220 yards and two touchdowns. 

The stress on Levis — he’s been sacked 18 times this season — was a contrast to the Kentucky defense’s struggles to get pressure on Ole Miss QB Jaxon Dart. The Rebels’ shifty, speedy running game gave him opportunities to pick apart the Cats’ secondary

Dart completed 15 of 29 passes for 213 yards. 

It didn’t help that Kentucky — already down a linebacker in J.J. Weaver — lost another in senior Jacquez Jones. Jones, a onetime transfer from Ole Miss, left the game in the third quarter

But UK’s struggles to contain the Rebels’ rushing came down to more the injuries. Ole Miss’ speed was a problem for a Kentucky team that hadn’t seen a comparably fleet and aggressive group of running backs. 

The Rebels’ Quinshon Judkins rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries (7.1 yards per carry). 

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Three takeaways from a sloppy loss for the Wildcats (4-1, 1-1):

Rodriguez returns 

Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) reacts with Kentucky Wildcats offensive linemen Tashawn Manning (79) after a touchdown run during the first quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Star running back Chris Rodriguez had to wait until Kentucky’s fifth game to get on the field

The Wildcats didn’t make him wait long to get involved. 

He carried on UK’s first play for 6 yards — right around his career average of 6.5 — and had nine carries in the first half. Rodriguez finished the game with 72 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. His 3.8 yards per tote were not much better than the team's 2.9 average on 37 attempts.

He caught three passes for 40 yards. 

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His return was promising for a mostly scuffling Kentucky run game, but not a cure-all for its blocking issues. He was dropped for a four-yard loss in the first half on which Ole Miss’ Ladarius Tennison had a clean path to him.  

Rodriguez also laid some competent blocks for Levis, and his return ultimately should help the Wildcats’ pass protection. But it wasn’t nearly enough Saturday. 

Still, Rodriguez showed his old ability to take a hit and push a pile forward, and the threat of him set up some slick play calls for Kentucky, including a tight end sweep for Izayah Cummings and a 5-yard shovel pass from Levis to Tayvion Robinson for a touchdown. 

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Special teams struggles 

Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back JuTahn McClain (17) reacts with Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Barion Brown (2) after a long kickoff return during the first quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Kentucky played Ole Miss was in 2020, when kicker Matt Ruffolo missed an extra point in overtime that would have tied the game. Instead, the Rebels won 42-41 in Lexington. 

Ruffolo had another rough outing against Ole Miss on Saturday. 

He missed a first-half field goal from 39 yards out and had a first-half extra point blocked. And a second extra point went awry on a bad snap. 

It was part of a rocky afternoon for the UK special teams, which also had a Chance Poore kickoff go out of bounds in the third quarter.  

Perhaps as a result of those struggles, Kentucky looked reluctant to kick in the second half. At the Ole Miss 26 in the third quarter, UK handed off to Rodriguez on a fourth-and-1. He picked up the yard for the first down. 

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Levis tried a pass to Rodriguez on fourth-and-1 from the Ole Miss 32 that was broken up by the Rebels’ Otis Reese. 

The saving grace for the UK special teams: kick returner Barion Brown, who had returns of 85 and 54 yards, though neither got him in the end zone. He has one return TD already this year.

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Blue gets in

Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops (left) reacts from the sideline during the second quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss fans showed up in color-coordinated clothing, striping Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in sections of red and blue. 

But the Kentucky faithful turned a couple of sections into checkerboards with blocks of blue and white. The Grove, Ole Miss’ renowned on-campus tailgate spot, was peppered with UK fans before the game, and their significant presence was apparent inside the stadium well before kickoff. 

Tom Leach, in his 25th season as Kentucky’s radio play-by-play voice, said at halftime that Saturday’s Cat-fan turnout “might” have been the biggest he’s seen at an SEC road game. 

The only other contender, he said, was a 2018 visit to Texas A&M, UK’s first trip there after the Aggies joined the SEC. That Kentucky team had started the season 5-0 and climbed to No. 13 in The Associated Press Top 25 before losing 20-14 in College Station, Texas. 

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson and bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.