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Arkansas looking to bounce back against Mississippi

by Tom Murphy | October 9, 2021 at 12:30 a.m.

OXFORD, Miss. — The Arkansas-Ole Miss series, the second-most played for the Razorbacks among current SEC opponents, probably doesn’t get the notoriety it deserves.

The long-time rivals, whose first meeting dates to 1908, have played some of the most dramatic games in NCAA football history and even have an age-old dispute to help heat up the border rivalry.

Today’s 11 a.m. meeting between the Razorbacks (4-1, 1-1 SEC) and Rebels (3-1, 0-1) is packed with storylines galore and potentially the highest stakes the SEC West rivalry has seen in years.

Arkansas will bring the No. 13 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll into the fray while the Rebels are No. 17.

“To be honest with you, Arkansas and Ole Miss ought to be, to me, a rival game kind of like us and Missouri,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said. “I think it’s working its way into that more and more because you see probably two very similar, in terms of talent, teams and things of that nature.”

Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin lived in Fayetteville from the ages of 2-4 when his father, Monte, served as defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz from 1977-79.

“We know there’s a long tradition with the game and, I don’t really remember but I lived in Arkansas, Coach Holtz, so they have great fans, very passionate,” Kiffin said.

Kiffin has noticed the renewed intensity surrounding Arkansas football under Pittman.

“Even though it was COVID we could still feel that from that game a year ago,” he said. “We noticed it that Texas game and again they are back to playing what they had before years ago: Very physical and really good football. Very sound.”

Both programs have remarkably similar parallels at this stage.

Arkansas and its second-year coach Pittman broke into the top 10 last week and are seen as a dark horse contender in the SEC West, a potential New Year’s Six bowl participant and somewhat of a national darling.

Ole Miss and its second-year coach Kiffin reached No. 11 last week, they’re viewed as an up-and-comer in the West, a potential New Year’s Six bowl participant and carry a national cachet between Kiffin’s out-of-the-box style and quarterback Matt Corral’s Heisman Trophy candidacy.

Both took a gut punch last week against the teams many consider the best in the land: No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia.

The Rebels fell behind 35-0 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before rallying late to pull within 42-21.

The Razorbacks fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter, were clearly rattled by the crowd and atmosphere and took a 37-0 pounding in Athens, Ga.

Kiffin was a candidate for the job Pittman eventually landed, so he’s aware of the advancement Arkansas has made.

“Both teams struggled a week ago against the two best teams in the country, [but] still a matchup of top 20 teams that have a come a long ways in two years, especially them,” Kiffin said. “This was a team that two years ago struggled to play any game close. I remember them losing by a couple of scores to North Texas [44-17 in 2018] so Sam has done an unbelievable job.

“We’re getting ready for an ultra-physical football team that runs the ball extremely well and is very, very physical and is second in the country in pass defense.”

Pittman said his team wasn’t ready for the grand stage at Georgia with ESPN’s GameDay on site and the raucous atmosphere.

The parody team at SEC Shorts made a play off the routs in a skit last Sunday.

A “principal” in the video took the “bully” Georgia to task, saying, “Arkansas was the feel good story of the year. Some would even call them America’s team, a Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the post-Chad Morris era to be ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2012, and you do that to them.”

Said the “Georgia” guy, “Well, in our defense, we do that to everybody.”

The principal turned his attention to the “Alabama” guy, saying, “Ole Miss was a budding up-and-coming high-powered offensive juggernaut that was going to challenge you for control of the SEC West.”

A popcorn-eating Alabama guy replies “Really?”

Pittman was asked what it meant that the Razorbacks and Rebels were trounced last week but didn’t fall drastically in the national polls.

“I can’t speak for them, but for us, we’ve played teams that are good,” he said. “We’ve beaten a couple ranked teams. I think that says everybody has that much respect for Alabama and Georgia, which they’ve given no reason not to to this point. I think that’s what it says mostly.

“Both of us were on the road in very intimidating, hostile environments. I don’t know how Ole Miss handled it. Obviously, I watched the tape. I know it intimidated us. We didn’t play very well, and part of it was because of the crowd.”

Said Kiffin, “I just watched Georgia and in the first quarter — I watched Arkansas’ offense. Alabama and Georgia, if you sign the best players, especially on the defensive side of the ball over years and get all the five-star players it starts to show up and you see that happening with both teams.”

With Texas A&M and LSU losing SEC home games already, some see the winner of this game as having a chance to challenge the No. 1 Crimson Tide atop the West and finish among the leaders in the division.

“Man, it’s very important,” Arkansas cornerback Montaric Brown said. “It’s going to come down to who wants it more. So it’s very important.”

The nature of the Arkansas-Ole Miss rivalry has lent to dramatic finishes.

“It’s always been a close game, and there’s always been a big play that’s determining the outcome of the game, and that’s kind of how all important SEC games are,” Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool said. “I think we would love for it not to be high drama, but that’s how ball is being played in the SEC right now.”

Arkansas has won six of the last 10 meetings in Oxford, and one of the Rebels’ wins was vacated due to NCAA infractions. That span covering the last 20 years has seen some of the most memorable wins in series history.

The Razorbacks and Rebels played the first seven-overtime game in NCAA FBS history on Nov. 3, 2001. Arkansas and quarterback Matt Jones outlasted Ole Miss and quarterback Eli Manning 58-56. In that game, the Rebels had chances to win in the third and fifth overtimes by converting a two-point conversion. Arkansas could have won with a field goal in the second overtime or a two-point conversion in the fourth overtime, but all of those opportunities failed.

DeCori Birmingham, who would star in the Miracle on Markham the following year, caught a two-point conversion pass that proved to be the difference in the seventh overtime. Jermaine Petty broke up Manning’s two-point pass for Doug Ziegler on the final snap of the game.

As dramatic as that game was, the 2015 contest, also an overtime affair at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, might have been even more thrilling for Arkansas fans.

The Razorbacks, trailing 52-45 in overtime, faced a fourth-and-25 snap from the Ole Miss 40. Quarterback Brandon Allen threw short of the chains for tight end Hunter Henry, who stood strong on a tackle attempt and launched a high-arcing lateral that tipped off 6-10 Dan Skipper’s outstretched hand and bounced directly to Alex Collins. The tailback followed blocks around the left edge and reached first-down distance before being stopped and intentionally lateraling backward, thinking he needed to score.

Dominique Reed pounced on the fumble to salvage the miracle play, fondly referred to as the “Henry Heave,” and set up a first down. Allen connected with Drew Morgan on a 9-yard pass two plays later for Allen’s sixth touchdown pass and Morgan’s third of the day. Allen was sacked on the bold two-point conversion call, but the Razorbacks got another chance thanks to a blatant face-mask penalty. Allen ran in the two-point conversion on the next snap to end the thriller.

The Razorbacks had stunned No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0 in the rain the previous season, with Rohan Gaines’ 100-yard interception return off Bo Wallace serving as a highlight.

“I mean, I remember when I was here in ’14 and … we were on a roll at that point and I can remember how physical the game was,” Pittman said. “And then the next year was the Hunter Heave. Man, what a game that was. It’ll go down in the history of Arkansas. What a wonderful game. Went for 2 and Allen ran in there on that.”

Pittman also fondly recalled a more recent memory from last year’s 33-21 win at homecoming.

“Getting our first home win in the SEC in however long it was, that was a big deal,” he said.

Two visits prior to the Henry Heave, the Razorbacks rallied from a 17-0 deficit with ex-Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt on the other sideline to win 29-24 in Oxford and improve to 6-1 under Coach Bobby Petrino.

The Razorbacks’ visit to Vaught-Hemingway in 2017 was also memorable. Arkansas trailed 31-7 in the second quarter before rallying for a 38-37 win on Connor Limpert’s last-second field goal.

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