Because of the stakes involved, sheer excitement, and freak occurrences, it was deemed the best game of 2015. It also came down to a lucky bounce in overtime, and that play was, well, damningly marvelous.
Going into Nov. 7, 2015, Ole Miss controlled the SEC West, and that was despite suffering embarrassing defeats at the hands of a rebuilding Florida team and a peaking Memphis squad. They had beaten Alabama in hilarious fashion back in September, which kept them afloat. A defensive stand against A&M and a shaky road victory at Auburn provided momentum for a bout against an Arkansas team that specialized in shaking things up, whether or not they benefited from it.
We tend to reflect upon events as if they were predetermined, and that we knew all along their lasting effect. Given that Ole Miss still had very losable games against LSU and Mississippi State coming up, this game was not perceived at the time as the ultimate decider of the SEC West. Looking back with all we know about how that season shook out, it’s frustrating as hell that it was.
It was a battle of dissimilar offenses.
It took a while for people to notice, but the Razorbacks subtly boasted one of the best offenses that season, ranking in the top five in both Passing and Rushing S&P+. Prior versions of Brett Bielema-coached offenses may have been characterized more for sitting on the ball and taking a brute force approach, but this group was terrifyingly balanced.
The Ole Miss offense, partly due to fully utilizing Chad Kelly’s skillset, was beginning a tear of its own after going the first half of the season without Laremy Tunsil at left tackle. Starting this game, Kelly would do everything he could to shake off the so-far justified label of being turnover-prone.
While the teams nearly mirrored one another in terms of overall production, their stylistic differences couldn’t be more apparent. The Rebels’ lighting-fast scoring drives took on average just over six plays and less than two minutes of game clock, while the Hogs stretched theirs out to eight plays and over four minutes.
Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos may actually have hit peak Arkansas on their opening possession, when they gained just 27 yards in nine plays, resulting in a punt. That series alone took five and a half minutes.
On their second drive, the Hogs found a formula grounded in play-action passes like this one, and the defense never adjusted.
With a more balanced look and few glitches, Ole Miss had the more rounded offensive performance this game. The Rebels moved the ball with insane consistency with a success rate of 61 percent compared to Arky’s 48 (national average was 40 percent in 2015).
From here on out, Kelly was more involved in the ground game, and the benefits were two-fold. It not only meant having a more steady option of picking up yards, but it helped the passing game as well by forcing defenses to keep bodies in the box and respect the run. Seeing the star quarterback lower his shoulder more often probably made fans nervous, but the results were beautiful.
In every sense, Arkansas tortured Ole Miss.
While Ole Miss was more efficient by a long shot, that disparity obviously didn’t matter in the end. The Landsharks made a habit out of successfully forcing Brandon Allen’s crew to fall behind the sticks, only to give up a big play on second or third and long. Arkansas was somehow better on passing downs than standard, with a success rate of 56 percent in these situations. For some much needed context, they ranked second nationally in passing downs efficiency - at just 43 percent on the season.
The Razorbacks also enjoyed an advantage in field position, with an average starting spot of their own 32 compared to the Rebels’ 26, but it’s hard not to put the majority of the blame on the defense’s inability to tighten up when it mattered most. Brandon Allen torched the secondary on passing downs, completing 14 of 18 for 194 yards and five touchdowns.
Each team traded blows throughout regulation, with the lead never stretching beyond a touchdown for either. While that back-and-forth excitement was enough to make for a classic, it got a lot more interesting with less than a minute left. After Allen used 2nd and 11 to find Dominique Reed in the end zone on another play-action (SMDH Dave Wommack), Ole Miss had 53 seconds to score, starting on their own 30.
With the way the game had turned into a contest of prolific offenses and helpless defenses, one would have wagered that the team with the final possession would win, simple as that. Nah.
Despite having coached in the SEC for four years and having at least some football-related experience prior to arriving in Oxford, Hugh Freeze decided to go for it on 4th and six from midfield. Once that flawless idea failed, Allen had six seconds to get into field goal position, which he did with a 21-yard pass to Reed to the Rebels’ 30. The game seemed over, in the most Ole Miss of ways.
Four quarters of this wouldn’t be insane enough.
Ole Miss and Arkansas were headed to overtime for the first time since 2001. The Rebels scored on their first series with relative ease, only needing three running plays to move 25 yards. The Razorbacks went a different route. Allen was backed into 4th and 25, and of course, he converted it. Because I’m not a terrorist of emotions, I don’t plan on sharing that clip or going into descriptive detail of how it happened, but if you’re feeling self-destructive, follow this link.
Drew Morgan scored two plays later, and Bielema decided to end the game with a two-point attempt. On a failed passing play, it seemed over, and the Rebels’ SEC West title hopes remained intact.
Marquis Haynes was called for a facemask, and the Hogs had another chance, which Allen used to find the end zone with his legs out of the shotgun. Hogs win.
The fact that Ole Miss could get this close to the SEC championship and fall short through such a wild chain of events seems to indicate that it’s not meant to be. The combination of that much talent in Oxford and internal turmoil at other programs in the West probably won’t ever converge as perfectly as it did that year.
The Rebels went on to thrash LSU, Mississippi State, and eventually Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. In a way, the season’s close made up for the Arkansas heartbreak, but it also reminded people what this team’s ceiling was. The case that Ole Miss could deliver Florida the same beating that it received back in Gainesville weeks before was strong. And none of that matters now.