There was an ominous sign during warmups before Arkansas and Ole Miss tangled at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. A man stepped out of a throng of recruits along the Ole Miss sideline to ask a game official to pose for a photograph with Rebel placekicker Jonathan Nichols. It turned out it was the alternate official assigned to the game.
Nichols turned out to be the star of the game. He booted four field goals, which would have been enough to beat the Razorbacks.
Officially, Nichols was four-for-four, nailing boots of 20, 24, 42 and 25 yards, although he did miss from 26 yards, a play wiped out by an illegal substitution penalty against Arkansas.
Nichols followed that miss from 26 with a make from 20, just 42 seconds from halftime to break a 7-7 tie, and then added three field goals in the second half as the Rebels throttled the Razorback offense in a 19-7 victory before a wet crowd of 58,717.
Ole Miss didn't have much offense. The Rebels made just 275 yards, an average of 3.8 per play. They were given just enough help on their first possession, with two pass interference penalties, when the Rebs scored their only touchdown. One of them came on a third-and-7 incompletion, the other on a second-and-13 incompletion.
But, the Hogs had less punch. Arkansas was held to 237 yards, or an average of 3.7. It was even worse until the Hogs came up with 57 and 61 on their last two possessions, both against soft Ole Miss alignments in the final five minutes.
Arkansas did not have a first down in the second half until the 3:50 mark of the fourth quarter. The Hogs were impotent on the ground with tailbacks Cedric Cobbs (left at home with a leg muscle pull) and De'Arrius Howard (ankle sprain) both sitting out.
The Hogs looked like they might have a bit of a running game with Brandon Holmes at tailback late in the first half when a turnover sparked a five-play, 12-yard touchdown drive.
However, Holmes sustained an injury which perhaps will end his Arkansas career on the kickoff that followed that lone Razorback score. He hurt a knee on a below-the-waist block, something Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said was an illegal play.
Kyle Dickerson started at tailback, but had only one carry for a 2-yard loss. DeCori Birmingham got the bulk of the work, rushing 12 times for 38 yards with a long of 13. Holmes had six rushes for 26 yards, with an average of 4.3.
The Rebels confused the Hogs with a collection of zone blitzes that made it tough for Matt Jones to find much time in the pocket. Jones was 12 of 29 passing for 140 yards. He had one interception, but that came on a fourth-down fling into the end zone late in the game.
Ryan Sorahan was used once on the night, that coming in the first half, completing one of three passes. Jones returned after that series when the Hogs got the turnover on an Eli Manning fumble when cornerback Marvin Jackson stripped him from behind on a blind-side blitz.
The Hogs gave it to Holmes for 4, 3 and 4 to move the chains and set up a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Mark Pierce needed two plunges to get the touchdown for a 7-7 tie at 7:35 of the second quarter.
Ole Miss would break that tie with a 15-play, 74-yard march that produced a 10-7 lead at 0:42 of the second quarter.
It was a drive that summarized the Hogs' luck and mistakes over a three-game losing streak that has taken them from No. 7 in the country and an even loftier spot in some of the computer listings to a situation that has some questioning every coaching move, every step by the players.
It started in an innocent fashion when a screen pass went for a 3-yard loss and Manning threw incomplete (with a declined holding penalty). On third-and-13, Manning scrambled in the rain for the exact yardage needed when he got a favorable spot. Replays showed he landed over 1-yard short of the marker, a spot that was missed because the linesman in front of the Arkansas bench scrambled off the field to avoid the sliding Ole Miss quarterback.
On the next play, a short pass netted 8 more, and another 15 when UA safety Tony Bua came into the pile late for a helmet-to-helmet hit that drew a deserved personal foul.
The Hogs couldn't stop a fourth-and-1 play, giving up 11. They finally halted the Rebels at the 9-yard line when Nichols came on to try a 26-yarder on fourth-and-8. The Hogs had been running players in and out at the end of that possession, sometimes lining up with a combination of 6-7 defensive backs and 4-5 linebackers, with no linemen. That backfired when they tried to get their field goal block unit on the field and Marcus Whitmore, an extra linebacker, didn't get off the field in time.
It had to be the strangest sight of the night as Whitmore realized he wasn't going to make it before Ole Miss tried the kick. The junior linebacker did a flip just before he got to the sideline, perhaps in complete frustration.
The Hogs drew another penalty before Nichols could atone for his earlier miss. They were called for delay of game in what officials ruled was an attempt to yell instructions that would make the Rebels snap the ball early.
Nichols finally booted the 20-yarder that would be all the Rebels needed.
Ole Miss didn't score again until the 1:58 mark of the third quarter when Nichols capped an 11-play, 53-yard march with a 24-yarder. Manning did it mostly with his passing. He had completions of 10, 18, 4 and 4 yards. The Rebels converted a third-and-2 with a 12-yard run when Marvin Jackson missed a tackle at the line of scrimmage.
The Hogs helped the Rebels to start their next scoring drive, a 7-play, 27-yard march. Ahmad Carroll hit the punt returner early for a 15-yard penalty that left the Rebels just short of the 50. Manning had back-to-back throws of 9 and 17 yards before the Rebels stalled at the UA 19-yard line.
Jones lost the handle at the end of a 15-yard scramble on a second-and-15 play that may have gotten the Hogs their first first down of the half. The Rebels recovered at the UA 25-yard line and converted with a 25-yarder from Nichols to set the final score with 4:59 left.
The Hogs finally got a first down with 3:50 left when Birmingham made six yards on a third-and-1 play. Jones passed them to the Ole Miss 23, but was incomplete on three straight and then was intercepted on a throw into the end zone for Steven Harris with 2:23 left.
"We just couldn't execute tonight," Jones said. "Our defense played great. The offense has to step it up and execute better.
"It hurts when you lose great backs like Cedric Cobbs ... he was in the Heisman Trophy race until he got hurt ... and De'Arrius Howard. Then, we lost Brandon Holmes. That really hurt us tonight to lose Brandon. He has so much heart and our team knows what he stands for as far as the sacrifices he makes for the team. That affects you when you see someone like that go down.
"All I know is that we have to stick together. Our backs are against the wall now. We have to somehow go to Kentucky and get a victory."
Jones said that Ole Miss has improved and played well against the Hogs. The Rebels had success with some zone blitzes, but he said that was not a tactic the Hogs didn't expect or see in practice.
"We knew they would do that," Jones said. "The problem was that we had too many third and longs. When you have third and longs, you are in a tough situation and then they can come at you with a lot of blitzes and schemes. You have to do better on first and second down.
"Maybe we need to mix it up a little more where we pass on early downs and run it on third down. that might help us out, but nothing really seemed to be working tonight."
Someone asked if the rain left the ball slick and tough to throw, and whether that was a factor when he fumbled in the fourth quarter.
"The ball was okay," Jones said. "I just fumbled it. I have to do a better job than that. I don't want to have any excuses for that. I just fumbled."
Offensive lineman Mark Bokermann said the Hogs have to bow up and get back to work.
"What we have here is some adversity," Bokermann said. "You are always going to face some and then you find out what you are made of and what kind of team you have. We've got it right here now. We have to face this adversity and then go to Kentucky and find a way to win this week. That's the only way you can look at it."
Matt Jones visits with Houston Nutt during a change of possession.
Matt Jones looks for running room against the Rebels.
Elliott Harris lines up for a pass rush situation.
Photos by Tom Ewart.