October 25, 2008

Rebels narrowly avoid a disaster

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Houston Nutt worried all week.

Ole Miss' coach knew his first return to Arkansas, the school where he served as head coach for the past decade, would be emotional. He knew his former players would play every bit as hard as his current players would. But what concerned Nutt the most all week was the knowledge that one sideline was full of players who had a lot of wins under their belts. The other didn't.

"What I was concerned about is that bunch on the other sideline, they won 18 games the last two years," Nutt said. "They've been to Atlanta. They've been to bowl games. Our guys haven't."

In a frantic finish, it appeared that Nutt's week-long worry would come to fruition in the form of a season-spoiling nightmare. Instead, Ole Miss held on for a dramatic 23-21 win in front of 74,168 rowdy fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

"That was our second SEC win in a long, long time," Nutt said. "It's not easy. It's a mindset and I thought we really grew up tonight."

Ole Miss improved to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas fell to 3-5 overall and 1-4 in league play.

Those records were very nearly reversed.

Ole Miss appeared to have the game well in hand late. The Rebels got a 28-yard field goal from Joshua Shene with 1:45 left to extend their lead to 23-14. Arkansas, without the benefit of a timeout, drove 71 yards in four plays, using just 38 seconds before Casey Dick's 22-yard touchdown pass to Greg Childs cut the Rebels' lead to 23-21.

Alex Tejada's ensuing onsides kick was originally ruled to have traveled out of bounds, giving Ole Miss the football. However, a review _ the only one of the night _ ended with a reversal and a ruling that Arkansas' Aaron Fenton had recovered the football in bounds, giving the Hogs possession at their own 47 yard-line with 1:07 left.

"I thought the referee made a good call," Nutt said. "I was hoping he did. Half his body was out of bounds. Half of his body was inbounds, so it could've gone either way. That was good pressure by our defense at the end. Our defense had to go back out there and play."

After an incomplete pass on first down, Arkansas' London Crawford was flagged for offensive pass interference, negating what would have been a 32-yard completion to the Ole Miss 21.

"I saw London push off," Nutt said. "I thought it was pretty clear. I was hoping it would be on them."

Instead of setting up for a game-winning field goal attempt, the Hogs were penalized 15 yards. Three incomplete passes later, the celebration on the Ole Miss sideline erupted.

"I'm really happy for our team," Nutt said. "This is a hard-fought victory. Anytime you're in the SEC, it's tough, especially coming on the road. I told our players how hard these guys were going to play. There are a lot of good players on that other sideline and I love them. I love my team right now, but it's hard not to love them when you recruited them and you have relationships. We had about 20 commitments before we left and I tell you what, they played their heart out and I want to give them a lot of credit. But I want to give our guys a lot of credit too."

The post-game scene was a wild one. While there were a scant handful of ugly fan displays, Nutt focused instead on the affection he received from his former players. One player after another came over to Nutt to hug their former coach and his assistants.

"There are just relationships," Nutt said. "You're close to them. You've been in their living rooms. That's why it's so hard on the coaches that have been here so long. It was a really hard week, harder than I thought. Those players coming over, it just shows you the relationship that we had."

The Rebels held a 13-7 lead at halftime, claiming an edge in an otherwise non-descript half of play. Ole Miss took a 3-0 lead on its second possession of the game when Shene nailed a 39-yard field goal.

Arkansas took the lead early in the second quarter when Smith took an option pitch from Dick and raced 13 yards for a touchdown. Two possession later, Ole Miss answered with an eight-play, 68-yard drive that culminated with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Snead to Shay Hodge.

It appeared the two teams were going to take that score to the locker room, but Ole Miss backup safety Fon Ingram had other ideas. Ingram picked off a Casey Dick pass and returned it to the Arkansas 17 with two seconds left. Shene capitalized, nailing a 34-yard field goal to extend the halftime advantage.

"I thought that was key," Nutt said. "It actually won the game."

Ole Miss returns home next week for another critical SEC West game, this time against an Auburn team that was whipped at West Virginia Thursday night. The Rebels and Tigers kick off at 11:30 a.m. at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

"We're taking off now," Nutt said. "We're taking off. We have some goals in sight now. This is going to be a happy plane ride, y'all, and a happy practice tomorrow."

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