Keeping with tradition, Ole Miss fell to Arkansas in dramatic fashion Saturday.
With two head coaches battling for their jobs, the Razorbacks and Rebels, both SEC bottom dwellers, remained in deadlock for much of the game. But when the clock hit zero, for the fourth year in a row, Arkansas finished on top. Coming down to a field goal as time expired, the Rebel faithful who bared the chilly temperatures had their hearts broken once again.
In absence of their predecessors, redshirt freshman Cole Kelley made his third start at quarterback for Arkansas, and junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu debuted as a starter for Ole Miss.
With just a single conference win under their belt prior to Saturday’s game, the Rebels knew something had to change. They needed momentum.
“Our emphasis this week was to get off to a good start,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said.
That’s just what Ole Miss did. Following Ta’amu’s first competition, a 10-yard shot to tight end Dawson Knox, the Rebel offensive line dismantled Arkansas’ front seven, ultimately freeing Jordan Wilkins for a 64-yard touchdown run. Ole Miss had taken a 7-0 lead 36 seconds into the game.
On offense, the Razorbacks leaned heavily on their running ability. Arkansas accumulated 42 yards during a six-minute drive and eventually scored on a 12-yard screen to running back Devwah Whaley, tying the game at seven.
Four offensive plays later, the Rebels rebounded with a score of their own. Looking calm in the pocket, Ta’amu found DaMarkus Lodge on the sideline and followed up with a quick flip to Van Jefferson. Powering up the gut, Eric Swinney returned the lead to Ole Miss.
After the Ole Miss defense forced a subsequent turnover on downs, Ta’amu found a gap and rushed for another touchdown, this time a 49-yarder. The score rose to 21-7.
On the following possession, Razorback kicker Connor Limpert missed a field goal attempt, and the Rebels regained possession. A 10-play, 53-yard drive Ole Miss culminated in a 37-yard, Gary Wunderlich field goal.
Arkansas went three and out on the next possession and quickly turned the ball back over. Ta’amu completed passes to D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown before a footrace to the line gifted the signal-caller his second rushing touchdown of the game. The Ole Miss lead swelled to 24, courtesy of a 31-7 scoreline.
“(Ta’amu) played great,” Metcalf said. “He’s a real good quarterback. He went through all his reads, all his progressions. He did everything right.”
After another Arkansas turnover-on-downs, the Rebels fumbled and lost possession. Converting the turnover into points, Arkansas’ Kelley rolled out and broke a tackle en route to the Hogs’ second score.
But the game soon shifted. Ta’amu threw an over-ambitious interception and granted Arkansas exceptional field position just before halftime. The Ole Miss faithful expected the worst.
“I think the normal momentum of the game shifted,” head coach Matt Luke said. “There’s no denying that.”
Minutes later, Arkansas found Deon Stewart in the end zone after a 23-yard screen play. The score stood at 31-21 as the half came to a close.
“Those screen plays took a long time to develop, and I think that’s one thing they were getting us on,” defensive lineman Breeland Speaks said. “Those screens were hitting us all game.”
The Razorbacks emerged from halftime with a newfound sense of urgency. On the first snap, Jonathan Nance carried the ball 40-yards to the Ole Miss 10. Kelley then found tight end Cheyenne O’Grady in the flat for six. The extra point cleared the uprights and the Ole Miss lead shriveled to three.
“We just have to execute more plays than our opponent,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “We didn’t do that today. We coached (the defense) up on the game plan, but (Arkansas) executed.”
After trading possessions, the Rebels took over but settled for a field goal. Whatever clicked for the Rebel offense in the first was clearly absent in the second. The energy in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium took a noticeable hit.
Returning the kickoff to its own 46, Arkansas’ still-struggling offense fumbled, and Ta’amu took over. Highlighted by a 31-yard muscle catch by Metcalf, the Rebels were again forced to settle for three points.
Down 37-28 with just under 10 minutes left in the fourth, the Razorbacks, desperate for a score, turned the ball over again. But as is tradition in Oxford, the Rebels soon too began to falter.
A botched handoff between Ta’amu and Wilkins left the ball on the ground, free for Arkansas defensive back Kevin Richardson II to scoop up and score. With six minutes remaining, the Ole Miss lead dropped to two.
“I think everybody will try to pin it on Jordan or the lack of inexperience,” Luke said. “But it was a routine read play, a freak thing, and obviously it happened at the worst possible time.”
In a failed attempt to run out the clock, Ole Miss went three-and-out and was forced to punt over the keys to a game-winning drive.
Twelve plays, 62 yards and four minutes later, Arkansas kicker Connor Limpert lined up a 34-yard field goal with seconds left on the clock. After three attempts to ice the Hogs, Limpert placed the ball confidently between the uprights. As the final whistle blew, the scoreboard read 38-37 in Arkansas’ favor. It was the Razorbacks’ first and only lead of the game.
“It was a tough loss. I sound like a broken record,” Luke said. “I’m proud of our guys to continue to get off the mat and keep fighting. But you have to keep working, take care of business, and can’t turn the ball over to win games in the SEC.”