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Arkansas vs. Ole Miss made no sense, which makes sense

The Rebels pulled out a win in Little Rock.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas, a 1-5 team that got blown out by North Texas, was up by six points over Ole Miss, a 4-2 team that wields one of the best offenses in college football. The Rebels had just missed a field goal early in the fourth quarter and looked ready to roll over against perhaps the only winnable opponent on their SEC schedule. Matt Luke, the interim-turned-permanent head coach whose job status has been a hot topic since his team was eviscerated by LSU two weeks ago, could no doubt feel the seat of his pants warming. If you’ve paid any attention to this rivalry over the past half decade, that all makes perfect sense.

Three years ago, a fourth-and-25 fluke in overtime handed the Hogs a win. Two years ago, a Chad Kelly fumble on fourth-and-the-game decided the match. Last year, a fumbled handoff finished a 24-point Razorback rally in Oxford.

So when Luke Logan’s 28-yard field goal attempt sailed right with 14 minutes left in a 33-24 game, Rebels fans can be excused for turning off the TV. We’d all seen this show before. The Ole Miss defense had been scorched by a running back from Last Chance U and, at times, a backup quarterback. When starter Ty Story left the game after a hard hit in the second quarter, replacement Cole Kelly immediately stroked a 39-yard touchdown to put his team up 24-10.

But something strange happened on Saturday night in Little Rock. Down nine points midway through the fourth quarter, the Rebels mounted a 10-play, 84-yard drive capped off by a two-yard touchdown lunge from backup running back Isiah Woullard. After giving up a first down on third-and-13, the Rebels defense made a rare stand and gave the ball right back to the offense, which embarked on a 97-yard journey to the end zone to take a 37-33 lead. That ended up being the final score.

The Rebels offense, which had been frustratingly impotent for three quarters, averaged 10.5 yards per play on those two game-winning drives. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu went 7-of-10 for 106 yards and ripped off key running gains of 27 and 15 yards. Running back Scottie Phillips took the lead on five-yard scamper with 42 seconds left.

Those 42 seconds were, theoretically, plenty of time for an Arkansas offense still wielding a timeout to march downfield against one of the country’s worst defenses. To that point, the Razorbacks had averaged 6.8 yards per play while racking up 476 yards of offense, 299 yards of which had come on the ground. Rakeem Boyd, one of the feel-good stories of the most recent Last Chance U season, put up 107 yards rushing on just seven carries before being injured in the second quarter.

But on the first play of the potential game-winning drive, Kelly, back in the game after yet another injury to Story, sailed a pass into the arms fo Rebels DB Zedrick Woods. Ole Miss, humiliated by Alabama and LSU, has its first SEC win of 2018.

It’s hard to understate the impact of the win for Luke. A loss to 1-5 Arkansas on the heels of blowouts to the Tide and Tigers would have ratcheted up pressure for Ole Miss to can its first-year head coach. A stretch run of Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State doesn’t offer a ton of winnable opportunities, so getting a fifth win against the Razorbacks was critical.

The Rebels will be kept out of a bowl game thanks to NCAA vengeance, but hitting the six-win mark will be an important accomplishment for a Rebel coaching staff very much at risk of losing the fan base. 3-3 South Carolina and 3-4 Vanderbilt are winnable games—S&P+ gives the Rebels more than a 60 percent chance to take each. Potential blowouts still loom against Auburn and Mississippi State, but taking down the Razorbacks in Little Rock bought much-needed space.