LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) - Gatorade dripped down Matt Luke's face onto his soaked black shirt and pants. He sauntered towards the visiting tunnel at Kroger Field, his path impeded with players and coaches wanting an embrace. He bear hugged defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff with a fury that seemingly released the weight of a season that has tried him to the point of tears.
The scene was on the field could best be described as pure elation and one ignited by D.K. Metcalf high-pointing a football in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds remaining on the clock. The score gave Ole Miss a 37-34 lead over Kentucky that it would not relinquish and its first road win in nearly a year.
"I am so proud of these kids," Luke said. "They kept coming back and battling. They continued to do that tonight. They put themselves in position to win the game and made a play to do it.
The ball sailed out of Jordan Ta'amu's hand and resulted in his fourth touchdown pass of the day. A guy who had played a total of one SEC football game completed 31-of-40 passes for a career high 382 yards and did not turn the ball over.
He orchestrated the game's final drive that went 71 yards and began with 2:14 on the clock. He needed all but five of those seconds and did with a calmness that mesmerized his offensive coordinator.
"Jordan's calmness from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed impresses me," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "He is like this the whole time. His poise is a definite asset when he is out there running this offense."
The ball floated away from Ta'amu and towards Metcalf as the game hung in the balance. The thoughts of previous failures and trying times this year has brought entered the mines of many watching. Metcalf's thought was simpler.
"It's mine," he said.
He reached over the defender, snagged the football and grazed his foot onto the stretch of blue turf. A play so close it required a review to solidify what just took place. His teammates didn't share that doubt.
"There was never a doubt. I threw my hands up immediately," senior linebacker DeMarquis Gates said. "That is D.K. Metcalf, man. That is money."
The game itself was a contest that swung towards both ends of the pendulum multiple times. The teams traded scores in an opening half in which the lead changed five times. Kentucky moved the ball at will against an injured and tired Ole Miss defense that lost defensive end Breeland Speaks in the process due to a targeting penalty. Kentucky parlayed a late first half score that gave them a 20-17 into another to open the second half. The Rebels trailed 27-17 and faced a lead that felt insurmountable given Kentucky's momentum offensively. The Wildcats had not punted to that point in the game. Another loss looked probable and another dosage of adversity tasted sour.
"In the back of everyone's mind is when is this team going to quit?" Luke said. "When they are going to give up? They just continue to show up and continue to fight."
The young Rebel defense responded with four consecutive stops.
"We are never going to quit," said Gates playing with two injured shoulders. "We are never going to give you a game. We might make mistakes and slip up. But we are never going to stop fighting."
The offense backed the defensive success. Ole Miss tied the game late in the third quarter on a 58-yard touchdown pass from Ta'amu to Metcalf that foreshadowed what would eventually decided the game. The sophomore wide receiver caught five balls for 83 yards and the two scores. Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown each caught a touchdown as well. Brown had seven catches and Jefferson had five, as did Damarkus Lodge and tight end Dawson Knox.
Gary Wunderlich banged home a career long 49 yard field goal early in the 4th quarter to give the Rebels a 30-27 lead.
Kentucky issued its most devastating punch of the game in the form of a 12-play, 95-yard scoring drive that melted more than eight minutes off of the clock and backed Ole Miss into a corner with two minutes remaining. Another effort that may come up short. The ball hadn't bounced their way all year and surely wouldn't now. The weight of last week's loss and all of the other adversity this team has faced could be felt once again.
Jordan Ta'amu had other ideas.
His calmness surfaced as the offense huddled before taking the field one final time.
"I said 'let's go put this in and win this game,'" Ta'amu recalled. "That is exactly what we did."
The team faced obstacles on the final drive alone. It battled the clock, It dealt with an opposing crowd. It converted a couple of third downs. Ta'amu fumbled the football on the Kentucky 10-yard line with a handful of seconds left. He was later ruled down before the ball squired out. It didn't faze the offense.
"I just had to play smart," Ta'amu said. "The clock was running."
Two plays later the momentum swung one final time. Ta'amu placed the football in an ideal spot. Metcalf leapt to go retrieve it.
"People count us out all the time Metcalf said. "We just keep going."
He came down and was greeted with teammates celebrating in elation. When the final five seconds ticked off, Ole Miss rushed towards the visitors' seating with jubilated faces and something to show for the work they put in when it had every excuse to fold in the face of adversity.
"They keep showing up and keep coming to work," Luke said. "When everything points against them, they keep getting back up. They're at their best in their darkest hour."
"You guys deserve this," one fan yelled as a mob of players jumped up towards the railing of the stadium.
Immersed in it was Luke, a man who just seven days prior faced the media with tears in his eyes after Arkansas escaped with a heart-sinking win. A man who took on a challenge and stepped up to the plate when his alma mater was in a tight spot. A man impossibly tasked with keeping his players invested in a season that appeared to be a wash. He never wavered when things looked dire and has seen it all as opportunity.
"This has been unbelievable for me," Luke said. "It has been an amazing experience. We have 19 more days guaranteed to us. We are going to take advantage of every single one."
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- Ole Miss baseball explodes for 11-3 win over Southern Miss
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- Ole Miss' season comes to a close in regional final
- Ole Miss' Arianne Hartono earns trip to NCAA Final Four