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SUNDAY REFLECTIONS: A look back at Ole Miss’ game against LSU

Ole Miss’ roller coaster of a season spiked again Saturday with a 38-17 win over LSU that the Rebels controlled for all but about five minutes.

Even with Leonard Fournette in the Tigers’ backfield, it was a better matchup for the Rebels (8-3, 5-2 Southeastern Conference), who have had much more trouble defending the pass than stopping the run. The Rebels contained Fournette (25 carries, 108 yards) and built a three-touchdown lead late in the third quarterback before the Tigers had to abandon the run in an attempt to get back in it.

LSU quarterback Brandon Harris finished with 324 passing yards, but 126 of those came in the fourth quarter with the Rebels playing prevent defense. Harris threw 51 passes, a career-high, but it wasn’t nearly enough as Ole Miss kept it faint SEC Western Division title hopes alive heading into the Egg Bowl this week.

Here are a handful of takeaways from Saturday’s game:

Chad Kelly was worth the scholarship

There were plenty of questions — and some apprehension — among the fan base when Hugh Freeze decided to go after a talented but troubled junior college quarterback in Chad Kelly, whose arm talent was obvious but choices off the field left a lot to be desired.

Kelly was at East Mississippi Community College last season because he had problems at Clemson, including reportedly getting in a verbal altercation with coaches during the Tigers’ 2014 spring game. Shortly after he signed with Ole Miss in December, he was arrested back in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and eventually entered a plea deal.

But Freeze decided to keep Kelly on the team, and the Rebels’ first-year quarterback has obliterated the SEC. He’s the league’s leading passer (3,504 yards), he’s Ole Miss all-time single-season touchdown leader (34) after accounting for four more against LSU, and he’s also racked up more yards of offense in a single season (3,857) than anybody else in school history.

He’s been able to do all of this because he’s behaved off the field since that December incident, and he’s been the one sure thing for the Rebels all season.

Engram gets involved

It’s been a quiet year for tight end Evan Engram, a preseason All-SEC first-teamer who entered Saturday’s game with just 25 catches and one touchdown.

But with Laquon Treadwell, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo making plays down the field, Engram found some room to operate underneath against LSU, finishing with five catches for 58 yards and a score, all season-highs. His touchdown was the backbreaker for LSU as Freeze pulled out a throwback screen to the junior on third-and-14 from the Tigers’ 36-yard line late in the third quarter that Engram took to the house, capping back-to-back scoring drives for the Rebels after LSU scored 10 quick points to start the second half to cut Ole Miss’ lead to 24-17.

Gates coming on

It isn’t how DeMarquis Gates wanted to draw a start, but the sophomore linebacker shined in a pinch.

Gates filled in for Denzel Nkemdiche, who by now you know was admitted to the intensive care unit at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi early last week for undisclosed reasons. Freeze along with Nkemdiche’s parents, Beverly and Sunday Nkemdiche, said in a joint statement last week Denzel’s situation is “not life-threatening.”

Gates, whose previous career-high was seven tackles, finished with a game-high 14 stops and a pass breakup. But the 6-foot-2, 217-pounder has been productive all season rotating regularly with Nkemdiche at the Stinger, or outside, position, entering Saturday’s game with 48 tackles. He’s now the Rebels’ leading tackler with 62 stops.

Gates will take over full-time once Nkemdiche runs out of eligibility at the end of the season, but the future may be now.

“He’s going to be a good player,” Freeze said.

Rebels pick themselves up

With its Western Division title hopes all but gone following that wild overtime loss to Arkansas a couple of weeks ago, it would’ve been easy for Ole Miss to go through the motions against LSU.

But Ole Miss was the team that brought the fight in a matchup of two disappointed teams. The Rebels, with some help from LSU and all of its penalties, got a stop on the Tigers’ first possession, hit on a 57-yard completion from Kelly to Adeboyejo on their first offensive snap to set up a quick field goal and scored the game’s first 24 points en route to the convincing win.

It won’t matter what Ole Miss does in the Egg Bowl on Saturday night if Alabama beats Auburn earlier in the day, but the Rebels at least kept the SEC West title door cracked should Auburn pull off what seems like the impossible by bouncing back from the kind of loss a lot teams wouldn’t.