It already looked like Arkansas was going to pull off a major upset before senior safety Rohan Gaines even got a chance to get into the game.
But his appearance - after sitting out the first half for last week's targeting penalty and ejection - absolutely sealed the deal in spectacular fashion as well as a bowl bid for the Razorbacks.
Gaines picked off a Bo Wallace pass and returned it 100 yards to put Arkansas up 27-0 late in the third quarter and it went on to blast No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0 on Senior Day on a rainy Saturday before 64,510 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"Obviously a fun day to be a part of," Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said. "I can’t say enough for our seniors. I told these guys for the entire week when you have your seniors playing their best football you have a chance for some really good things to begin to happen.
"We're playing as good as anybody," Bielema added later. "... If you put us in the room with anybody, I think we'd hold our own."
The Razorbacks (6-5, 2-5) used a strong defense to force six turnovers from Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) while pitching its second straight shutout after blanking LSU the week before while ending a 17-game SEC losing streak.
Gaines' pick was the back breaker for an Ole Miss team that had only lost to LSU and Auburn this season and remained in the hunt for the SEC Western Division title going into the game.
He was hit and fumbled just after crossing the goal line, but Tevin Mitchel recovered the ball any way so it still would have been a touchdown had the replay review not confirmed Gaines had made it in.
"I was just being patient," Gaines said. "Film study allowed me to play that route. I saw it on film so I remembered it and just played it. The crazy thing is I was kind of out of gas. I was looking up at the jumbotron and saw the guy catching me. My initial reaction was to dive, but before I could dive he kind of hit it but I figured I was in."
"Our whole mission today was to show that wasn't a fluke last week," noted Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers, one of 20 Arkansas seniors - including the late Garrett Uekman - honored before the game.
Junior wide receiver Keon Hatcher said Arkansas - who was just 3-9 last season and won just seven games the last two seasons - is reaping the rewards of handling adversity now.
"Trey Flowers and I just finished talking about this outside the door," Hatcher said. "It's really all God. He won't put you through anything you can't get through. We kept fighting and we had faith and we just came out and finally did it. And now that we have done it, we're rolling now."
Flowers remembers the good times - and is glad to be experiencing some again.
"I was sitting in the locker room after we do our little celebration song and just remembering the times where my freshman year we were doing that a lot. For us to go through rough times and be back on the rise, it was very humbling."
It was also the first time since 2002 that Arkansas - who had lost to 11 straight Top 10 foes over the past four seasons - had pitched back-to-back shutouts and had not happened in conference play since a pair in the SWC back in 1965.
"It was a tough one," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "They put it to us pretty good. I was concerned all week, for whatever reason, that we weren't totally locked in. I think that showed in the beginning of the game. That's my fault. I've got to make sure our kids are ready, but it just felt like a weird week for whatever reason."
ESPN also reported that the Razorbacks were the first unranked team since North Carolina Preflight 1942 to shutout back-to-back ranked opponents and Bielema was quick to credit defensive coordinator Robb Smith, secondary coach Clay Jennings, linebacker coach Randy Shannon and defensive line coach Rory Segrest.
“I think defensively our guys have just gained momentum," Bielema said. "Robb and the staff, I can’t say enough about Robb Smith and Rory Segrest and Randy Shannon and Clay Jennings. Each week just continue to impress me with how they work during the work to get a plan together. I think there’s a little bit of everything. Robb’s background, Randy’s background, Rory’s background and Clay.
"I think the players correct themselves on the field a lot of times during practice," Bielema added. "And when you get that going – I knew we would tackle well. We wanted to put some mental and physical pressure on Bo. And obviously when he went out of the game (hurt) we felt that favored us."
The Razorbacks' win also means the entire seven-team SEC Western Division is now bowl eligible with Arkansas now a possibility for the Liberty, Music City, Texas, Birmingham and Independence bowls.
“It's part of the process," Bielema said. "One of the things as coaches, at some point we’re going to win a lot more than six games around here. To be able to do that, you need to understand the process that got you there continues. You just play a 1-0 and mentality where each week … so whether you win or lose, you’re automatically focused on the next task. This week they definitely defined that, I think. Once we get this mentality going it’s really there."
Gaines is one of the seniors who has been through so much the program in the last four years - from highs to lows.
"It feels great," Gaines said. "I've been here through some tough times. It's tough not making a bowl game (the last two years). I think the seniors deserve this. We have great senior leadership. I feel like they deserve it all.
Arkansas won despite losing starting quarterback Brandon Allen for the game due to a hip injury in the second quarter, but he had already led the Razorbacks to a 17-0 lead by that point over Ole Miss, who had given up just 10 first-quarter points total in its first 10 games.
Austin Allen, Brandon's younger brother, took care of the offense from that point on with he and his brother combining to pass for 152 yards while Arkansas also piled up 159 yards rushing.
"BA took a shot on the back side of his hip, which stretched some of the stuff on the front side," Bielema said. "So he was dancing around in there (in the locker room after the game). I think he’ll be back probably sooner than later. But if not, Austin will be the guy."
Jonathan Williams had 20 carries for 81 yards to top the 1,000-yard mark for the season while Alex Collins rush 23 times for 79 yards and is now close to topping the mark himself as he did last season.
On the other hand, Ole Miss rushed for just 66 yards on the day.
"They've been very good against the run," Freeze said. "We probably may have gotten out of it a little bit when we got behind. Felt like we could throw some things on them and just press the pedal right there before half and try to get a score and get us a little momentum."
Gaines' big play - which tied the school record set by Jarrell Norton against North Texas in 2007 - was one of four Wallace turnovers the Razorbacks forced on the day.
The Arkansas defense forced Wallace (16-of-31 for 255 yards) into two interceptions and two lost fumbles - while back-up Phillip Buchanan also fumbled deep in his own territory and threw an interception.
After winning the coin toss, deferring its option to the second half and forcing the Rebels to go three-and-out, the Razorbacks took a 7-0 on its opening possession - one that took just three plays to cover 51 yards in 72 seconds.
Hatcher took a sweep 12 yards, Collins ripped off 15 yards and then Allen drilled a 25-yard touchdown pass into Hatcher for the score.
Adam McFain added the PAT and the Razorbacks had a lead with 12:05 left in the first quarter.
McFain moved that margin to 10-0 with a 22-yard field goal on Arkansas' second possession - which began after Arkansas senior linebacker Martrell Spaight (11 tackles) caused a Wallace fumble at the Rebels' 29.
Arkansas would push it to 17-0 by the end of the first quarter although it took five tries after getting a first down at the Ole Miss 4.
It appeared the Ole Miss defense had held on 4th and 1, but an off sides penalty negated that and the Razorbacks used the extra down to its advantage as Collins got in from the half-yard line with 1:09 left in the opening quarter.
"Their offense had good field position on three straight possessions," Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram said. "There was not much really our defense could have done. They played hard all game. They just put up the quick 17 points and it put us under pressure."
Ole Miss looked to be the verge of scoring after Wallace reentered the game and completed a 40-yard pass to Quincy Adeboyejo down to the Arkansas 13.
But Tevin Mitchel picked off a lazy Wallace pass in the end zone to end the threat.
"In the late second quarter we started moving the ball well again and got in the red zone, but we just couldn't catch a break offensively and it is hard to depend on the defense of they are out there that much," Engram said. "We can't win games if don't score points."
McFain missed a 37-yard field goal to end the half, but he drilled a 31-yard boot to put Arkansas up 20-0 with 5:43 left in the third quarter.
Arkansas played without sophomore tailback and kick returner Korliss Marshall, who was suspended for the third time this season.
"Korliss Marshall has been suspended indefinitely," Bielema said. "Don't want to say anything for certain, but it doesn't look like he will be back with the team."
The Razorbacks will finish up the regular season with a game at Missouri on Friday at 1:30 p.m.
Trey Flowers sacks Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace on a fourth down play.
Jonathan Williams had 81 yards rushing on Saturday to top the 1,000-yard mark for the season for the first time in his career.
Keon Hatcher had 2 catches for 58 yards and the game's first score and also rushed once for 12 yards.
Bret Bielema makes a comment to the refs.
Austin Allen looks for a receiver down the field.
Alex Collins dives over the pile.
Jonathan Williams powers for yards in the open field.
Hunter Henry rolls after a reception.
Martrell Spaight makes a tackle.
AJ Derby fights for yards after the catch.
AJ Derby has his legs tripped.
An Arkansas defender hauls down Ole Miss running back Jaylon Walton
Photos by Jason Ivester
Arkansas 30, No. 8 Ole Miss 0
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