By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
OXFORD, Miss. — Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino spent the past two weeks urging his team to get off to better starts the rest of the season.
Opponents scored first in Arkansas’ previous three games. The Razorbacks faced a couple of double-digit deficits, too. So, with Ole Miss struggling, Petrino didn’t want to give the Rebels any hope in front of their home crowd.
Arkansas failed miserably in that regard Saturday. But the Razorbacks did prove, once again, big holes don’t really phase them.
Arkansas overcame another slow start to beat Ole Miss 29-24 in front of an announced crowd of 57,951 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Razorbacks (6-1, 2-1 in SEC) trailed 17-0, but settled down, scored 29 straight and held off Ole Miss’ late charge to notch another win.
"It’s not going to be easy on the road," Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. "It’s always tough, especially SEC road games. So the fact we figured out a way to win, I think, is positive. You move forward and you take your wins in this conference any way you get them."
Running back Dennis Johnson led Arkansas’ charge, piling up a career-high 160 rushing yards with a touchdown on 15 carries.
Wilson wasn’t sharp throwing the ball (13 of 28 for 232 yards), but contributed two touchdown runs. And Arkansas’ defense made key adjustments in the locker room once again, holding the Rebels to seven points in the second half.
"That’s about the 10th deep breath I’ve taken," Petrino said when he sat down for his postgame interview. "I think our team really showed a lot of heart, a lot of character, a lot of toughness. ... You certainly don’t want to start that way, but you’ve got to give (Ole Miss) credit."
Ole Miss (2-5, 0-4 in SEC), fresh off a 52-7 loss to Alabama and in the midst of a 10-game SEC losing streak under coach Houston Nutt, looked sharp in the first half Saturday. The Rebels averaged 20 points and 252.8 yards entering Saturday’s game, but nearly reached those totals in jumping out to a 17-0 lead.
Ole Miss quarterback Randall Mackey led the rejuvenated group, completing 10-for-12 passes for 122 yards with a 31-yard touchdown pass to receiver Donte Moncrief and a TD run.
Defensively, the Rebels were aggressive and blanketed Arkansas’ receivers. The Hogs managed two first downs on their first three possessions — one of which came courtesy of a penalty — and spent a lot of time on the sideline.
The Rebels outgained Arkansas 250-128 in the half and dominated time of possession (22:12 to 7:48), controlling every aspect of the game.
"I just felt like we hadn’t had the ball a whole lot," Wilson said. "I was anxious. I felt myself being on the sideline holding the ball, going, ‘I want to get back out there.’"
Arkansas’ only highlight was a 52-yard touchdown run by Johnson on a 3rd-and-13 draw play. The back raced through Ole Miss’ secondary to give the Hogs some much-needed hope.
"We were calm," Petrino said. "The touchdown before half helped us a lot to get close."
The Razorbacks took charge after the break, scoring points on its first three possessions to take a 24-17 lead. The fourth ended with a Johnson fumble at the Ole Miss 1, but Jerry Franklin dropped running back Jeff Scott in the end zone for a safety to make it 26-17.
"We had them off balance in the first half," Nutt said. "They came out second half and took that away. We got off rhythm a little bit and dropped some ball. We had some illegal procedures. All we needed was one score."
Nutt was right. But his team couldn’t get it.
Despite Arkansas’ 29 straight points, the Rebels had chances to win. Mackey, who completed 18 of 30 passes for a career-high 219 yards, threw his second touchdown pass to Moncrief with 1:23 remaining in the game to make it 29-24. Ole Miss then executed an onside kick, recovering the ball at its own 43 with a chance to win.
But Ole Miss’ upset hopes ended two plays later, when Mackey threw a pass into double coverage that was intercepted by Arkansas safety Eric Bennett. Wilson and the Hogs ran out the final 38 seconds to walk away with a win.
"We didn’t start very good," Petrino said. "Not at all. ... But we found a way to win."
Arkansas finished with 438 yards, including 206 on the ground in an improved effort. Ole Miss — after its big first half — finished with 370.
The Razorbacks evened their record against Nutt at 2-2, winning its second straight in the series. More important, the Hogs continue their best start since 2006 and remain in the race with Alabama and LSU for the SEC West title.
"We have confidence in each other," said Arkansas receiver Joe Adams, who had a team-high four catches for 124 yards. "We told the guys last night that we wouldn’t lose this game. When we got down 17-0, we had to push through."