NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart exhibited steadiness and late-game poise in his first game since coach Lane Kiffin named him the Rebels' full-time starter.
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt couldn't get on the field for the biggest game on the Green Wave's schedule after taking a heavy hit in the final minutes of a 20-point victory the previous weekend.
The result was predictable, but the Top 25 match-up was hardly devoid of drama.
Dart accounted for 308 yards and passed for two touchdowns and No. 20 Mississippi pulled away late to beat 24th-ranked Tulane 37-20 on Saturday.
Caden Davis kicked a career-long 56-yard field goal to give Ole Miss (2-0) a 10-point lead with 1:53 left, and defensive end Jared Ivey picked up a fumble caused by Khari Coleman’s sack and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown.
“We didn’t flinch. We didn’t hesitate. We knew that we were going to figure it out," Dart said. “Obviously, we expected to win. Morale moving forward is definitely high because we know if we have a bad quarter or a bad drive, we’re going to be able to rebound."
Dart passed for passed for 267 yards, despite being without top receiver Tre Harris for three quarters. He rushed for 41 yards, including a 20-yard scramble to set up a go-ahead field goal.
“He really battled,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. “He didn't play perfect by any means but he played really tough.”
After Tulane coach Willie Fritz said Tuesday that Pratt was “fine,” the coach started Kai Horton. Pratt, who'd come up limping after a scramble in the final minutes of a 37-17 victory over South Alabama, was wearing shorts with a protective sleeve on his left knee.
“It looked promising early in the week, but it didn’t continue that way,” Fritz said about Pratt's condition. “I’m not going to play anybody if I think they can hurt themselves further. He just isn’t quite ready. He wanted to play. That was my decision."
Still, Tulane (1-1) took a 10-point lead in the first half. And after falling behind early in the fourth, the Green Wave was in tying field goal range. But Fritz chose to run an offensive play on fourth and 2 from the 31 and Horton was forced out of bounds just short.
On the next play, Dart found Dayton Wade for a 43-yard catch as the receiver twisted in the air, corralled the ball with one hand and landed hard on his back. Soon after, Dart evaded a blitzing linebacker, rolled right and hit Michael Trigg for a 21-yard, fourth-down scoring pass to make it 27-17 with 4:28 left.
Horton, who'd come off the bench to lead an overtime victory at Houston last season, looked ready early. On Tulane's first possession, Horton hit Lawrence Keys for a 57-yard gain that set up Makhi Hughes' short TD run to tie the game.
Horton's 41-yard touchdown pass to Jha'Quan Jackson gave the Wave a 17-7 lead.
Mississippi's staff had assumed Pratt would play “until we got here and saw them warming up,” Kiffin said. “We didn't really play much different — maybe a little more aggressive with more pressure on an inexperienced guy. But he made a couple plays early and got himself some confidence.”
Ole Miss rallied to score the next 20 points.
The Rebels parlayed a fourth-down stop on their own 35 into a 65-yard touchdown drive, capped by Quinshon Judkins' 9-yard run, tying it at 17 with 6:11 left in the third quarter.
After the teams traded interceptions by Tulane's Lance Robinson and Mississippi's Deantre Prince late in the third quarter, the Rebels drove for Davis' 27-yard field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Mississippi: Dart's first TD pass was a 31-yard strike to Harris to cap a three-play opening drive that gave the Rebels a 7-0 lead. The rest of the afternoon wouldn't be as easy, but Ole Miss still posted a convincing outcome by outscoring its host 27-3 in the second half. Kiffin said he doesn't expect Harris' injury to keep him out long.
“It was ugly," Kiffin said. "But it wasn't like we kicked a field goal with 1 second left” to win.
Tulane: Playing a Top 20 team from the SEC close for 58 minutes is a positive sign for the Green Wave, which has yet to play a league game as the defending American Athletic Conference champions.
“That's a really good team that played really hard and obviously gave us a lot of challenges today, just like they've given a lot of people,” Kiffin said about Tulane. “They're very tough up front and their front seven on defense gave us a lot of problems.”
Ole Miss should move up in the AP Poll after a solid road victory over another ranked team. Tulane is in danger of dropping out of the Top 25 for the first time since last October.
Mississippi: Hosts Georgia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 16.
Tulane: Visits Southern Mississippi on Saturday, Sept. 16.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll