In a battle to avoid last place in the SEC West, the Ole Miss Rebels faced off against the Arkansas Razorbacks in a chilly Saturday morning game.
Both sides took the field without starting their signal-callers. Shea Patterson was missing from the Ole Miss lineup and Austin Allen from Arkansas’. In their absence, redshirt freshman Cole Kelley made his third start for Arkansas, and junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu made his debut for Ole Miss.
After electing to defer, Arkansas kicked off to begin the game, and it didn’t take long for Ole Miss to find the end zone.
“Our emphasis this week was to get off to a good start,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said.
And the team did get off to a good start. Ta’amu’s first competition as the starting quarterback went for 10 yards to tight end Dawson Knox, and the offensive line dismantled the defensive front seven and running back Jordan Wilkins went untouched for 64 yards. Ole Miss took a 7-0 lead 36 seconds into the game.
The Razorbacks relied on their running ability out of the gate. On a drive that lasted just more than six minutes, Arkansas accumulated 42 yards on the ground and scored on a 12-yard screen to running back Devwah Whaley that tied the game at seven.
Four offensive plays later, the Rebels were on the board again. Looking calm in the pocket, Ta’amu found DaMarkus Lodge on the sideline and followed that up with a quick flip to Van Jefferson. Powering up the gut, Eric Swinney put Ole Miss up 14-7 from two-yards out.
Not skipping a beat after the defense forced a turnover on downs, Ta’amu took the fifth play of the drive for a 49-yard rushing touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
After a missed Arkansas field goal, a 10-play drive for Ole Miss culminated in a 37-yard field goal from Gary Wunderlich.
A three-and-out for Arkansas gave the ball back to Ole Miss, who didn’t take long to score again. Ta’amu completed passes to D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown before a footrace to the line found the Hawaii native with his second rushing touchdown of the game and a 31-7 lead.
“(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.”
However, a defensive stop later, Octavious Cooley caught a sure-thing first down but fumbled at the marker and Arkansas recovered. Converting the turnover into points, a sizable run put the Razorbacks in the red zone before quarterback Kelley rolled out and broke a tackle en route to the Hogs’ second touchdown.
Coming off a prolific start to the morning, the Ole Miss counterattack was put to bed after a Ta’amu interception was returned to the Ole Miss 21-yard line.
“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 remained 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 received the ball to start the second half and on the first play, Jonathan Nance carried the ball for 40 yards to the Ole Miss 10. On the next play, Kelley found tight end Cheyenne O’Grady in the flat for six. The extra point cleared the uprights, and Ole Miss found itself ahead by only 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 and their longest drive of the day and Wunderlich kicked a field goal, distancing the lead to six.
Arkansas returned the kickoff to the 46 and fumbled on the next play. Ta’amu’s offense took control with a 31-yard muscle catch by Metcalf, and the Rebel drive resulted in three points and gave Ole Miss a nine-point lead.
Down 37-28 with just under 10 minutes left, the Razorbacks turned the ball over on downs and had an uphill battle in front of them. But, as is tradition over the last four years, the mojo fell to the Hogs.
A botched exchange on the handoff between Ta’amu and Wilkins fumbled the ball, and Arkansas defensive back Kevin Richardson II scooped it and scored. With six minutes remaining in the game, the Ole Miss lead thinned to just 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.”
Hoping to take the clock down and put the game away, 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 to kick from 34 yards out. Sending the ball between the uprights, Arkansas took its first lead of the day and a 38-37 road victory.
“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.”
The Rebels will regroup and face Kentucky on the road a week from today.