by Joseph W. Gex II, Staff Writer

The lead up to the game between the #12-ranked Ole Miss Rebels and the Liberty Flames had all the makings of a classic contest. Former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze coming back home, two quarterbacks mentioned in the 2021 Heisman Trophy race in Matt Corral and Malik Willis. Top tier bowl aspirations on the line for Ole Miss.
However, it was a nine-sack effort by the Rebels’ defense that swayed this game.
The Rebels tallied nine sacks, including seven in the first half, on the Flames’ Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer, to help dig a hole too deep to climb out of for the Flames.
In addition to that stat, the defense pitched a shutout in the first half and actively pursued Willis all afternoon.
Corral threw for 324 yards and a touchdown on 20-for-27 passing while Dannis Jackson had six catches for 126 yards and a score and John Rhys Plumlee added seven catches for 110 yards. Running back Jerrion Ealy chalked up 115 yards rushing on 10 carries and two touchdowns.
Defensively, the Rebels were led by A.J. Finley who recorded 12 tackles and two interceptions. Jaylon Jones also had an interception. Chance Campbell and Sam Williams each had two sacks in the game. Williams has recorded 10.5 sacks in 2021 which is a new single-season school record.
The Rebels (7-2, 3-2) wasted little time finding the endzone as Ealy ripped off a 70-yard scoring run on the second play from scrimmage. Caden Costa made good on the PAT to make the score 7-0.
Two possessions later, Liberty attempted a 38-yard field goal that sailed wide left.
Ole Miss capitalized on the missed kick as Corral hit Jackson for a 50-yard gain followed by a 43-yard field goal from Costa to push the score to 10-0 with 1:22 left in the first quarter.
After a stiff stand by the Rebel ‘D’, Corral hit Braylon Sanders with a 44-yard aerial. Ealy found the endzone for the second time from four yards out. The PAT by Costa gave the Rebels a 17-0 advantage with 13:13 left in the first half.
Three possessions later, Willis threw an interception to Finley and the Rebels capitalized again. Corral hit Jackson for a 40-yard scoring toss. Costa converted the PAT to give the Rebels a 24-0 lead.
Tavius Robinson ended the first half with a boom as he sacked Willis on the final play of the half.
Liberty avoided the shutout on the first series of the second half when Shedro Lewis scored from 28 yards out. With 10:31 left in the third quarter, Ole Miss led 24-7.
The Rebels answered with a 38-yard field goal by Costa with 6:49 left in the third quarter to make the score 27-7.
The Flames cut into the Rebel lead even further when Willis scored from three yards out to complete a 73-yard drive at the end of the third quarter to make the score 27-14.
Three times in the fourth quarter, the Rebel defense rose to the occasion.
On the Rebel 34 yard line, Willis attempted a fourth down pass that was broken up by Keidron Smith.
With about 9 minutes to play, back-to-back sacks from Williams and Cedric Johnson forced the Flames to punt away.
With time ticking away, Willis threw a pass to the endzone from the Rebel 21 yard line only to see it picked off by Finley in the endzone to end the threat.
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin commented, “The first half was great getting a 24-0 lead and six sacks on defense. We played bad in the second half and lost 14-3. It is always challenging when you get a lead like that against a team that they don’t think is a SEC team and then you loosen up which is what happened. They have an elite player in Malik Willis that we contained in the first half and did not in the second half. Matt Corral played well, as did John Rhys Plumlee and Dannis Jackson in extended action. The defensive play was good to see in the first half. Sam Williams performance today shows what an elite player he is as we rush only three guys. We did not finish well on third down and that led to play count differences.”
The #12 Rebels host #11 Texas A&M on Saturday, November 13, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
ESPN College Game Day broadcast returns to Oxford for just the second time this weekend. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.