OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - Turnovers set the forces in motion for a 24-point lead to evaporate in front of Ole Miss' eyes as Arkansas escaped Oxford with a wild 38-37 win in the latest chapter of this SEC West rivalry.
The most critical one came late in the fourth quarter. Ole Miss took the field with 6:01 remaining on the game looking to salt away a 37-28 lead that once was as high as 31-7. A zone read between Jordan Ta'amu and Eric Swinney went haywire and the football landed in the grass. It was scooped up by Arkansas's Kevin Richardson, who ran it into the end zone for a touchdown that altered the trajectory of the game more than any other. The Razorbacks trailed 37-35 with plenty of time on the clock.
"There was a mesh issue," offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. "We didn't want to throw the football. We wanted drain the clock a little bit."
"It was a miscommunication," Ta'amu said. "I take full responsibility for that. We did not have that connection. I wanted to pull it and gain a couple of yards. I saw the defensive end go straight to Swinney."
It was a bitter end to an otherwise productive debut for the senior. An Ole Miss punt on the next drive paved the way for Arkansas to take the football down the field and win the game on a 33-yard field goal from the left foot of Connor Limpert. The Razorbacks led for a total of four seconds in the ballgame.
"Another tough loss and I sound like a broken record," head coach Matt Luke said. "I am proud of these kids. They have had to get back up off the mat and keep fighting a lot this year. We just have to keep working. We can't turn the football over and win games in the SEC. I am proud of these kids for fighting."
Both teams came into the game with back up quarterbacks, battered offensive lines and struggling defenses. The Rebels carried the advantage at signal caller thanks to the play of Ta'amu. He was 20-30 for 368 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns and was a large reason why Ole Miss' lead ballooned to 31-7 in the first 25 minutes of the ballgame.
Jordan Wilkins scored on the second play of the game when he exploded through a hole on the far side of the field en route to a 64-yard touchdown. Wilkins had 16 rushes for 118 yards.
After Arkansas answered with a 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive of their own to tie the game, the Rebels rattled off 24 consecutive points. An Eric Swinney rush capped of a scoring drive that was fueled by two long Ta'amu passes to D.K. Metcalf and Van Jefferson. Metcalf had four catches for 107 yards. Jefferson caught the same number of balls for 57 yards.
"I thought he did a great job for his first start," Longo said. "I thought with the preparation he put in he did a great job."
Ta'amu's lone mistake came late in the half after Arkansas had finally stopped the bleeding with a touchdown of their own to make it 31-14, a score that was set up by a fumble by Octavious Cooley after a long reception. Ta'amu was picked off by Josh Liddell who returned it all the way down the the Ole Miss 22. The Hogs punched it in a few plays later to close the gap to 31-21 at the half despite the Rebels wracking up 410 yards of offense in the opening half alone.
"I am really proud of Jordan," Luke said. "He did really well in his first start. He did a lot of really good things and we are going to build on those."
Arkansas slowed the game down in the second half. It scored on its opening drive to make it 31-28. The Razorbacks dominated time of possession, holding the ball for over 40 minutes of the game largely thanks to their ability to run the football. Arkansas compiled 260 yards on the ground.
"The team that executed better down the stretch won the game," defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. "We have to execute more plays than our opponent and we did not do that today."
Quarterback Cole Kelley struggled to throw the football down the field. Most his yards came on screen plays as did both of his touchdown passes. Arkansas torched Ole Miss on screens.
"One of the best teams I have seen in terms of executing screens," McGriff said. "We coached them up on it and they executed."
The Rebels were unable to administer the kill shot as two drives stalled and turned into field goals instead of touchdowns. The Razorbacks in turn 21 points off of three Rebel turnovers, the final one being the most costly. Arkansas's kill shot came off the foot of Limpert. As the ball sailed through the uprights, Ole Miss' missed opportunities and stumbles equated to a costly defeat.
"It's going to be tough," Luke said. "This was definitely a gut punch. These kids have had to pick themselves up off the mat a lot. We will go back to work tomorrow and do the same. We will get ready to play Kentucky."