The performance of the true freshman cannot be minimized. In a different way, it was just as remarkable as what Matt Jones did in seven overtimes four years ago at Oxford.
As some of his assistants and players were applauding Houston Nutt for sticking with Dick after a lackluster first half, the decision by the Arkansas coach to stick with utility man Peyton Hillis might have been just as important.
Hillis had been in Nutt's doghouse for saying the wrong thing several times this season. Hillis fell down in the open field twice last week after catching passes. His play as the punt returner had come into question two games ago when he muffed one and didn't field another.
All of that left Nutt questioning Hillis' health, both mental and physical. The coach decided it was time to clear the air with a heart-to-heart meeting before practice Tuesday.
"I wanted to see if he was well," Nutt said. "I knew he had a stomach virus before the South Carolina game. But I wanted to see if everything was all right in his personal life, too. I just brought him for about 45 minutes. I told him, ‘This team needs you -- are you all right?'
"I probably should have done that earlier this season. I'm sure he was surprised when he got that call this late in the season. I asked Danny (Nutt, backfield coach) what he was doing and he said it was time for position meetings. I told him this was more important. It went awesome.
"I just felt that in the South Carolina game that he wasn't himself. Was he sick? I knew he was physically sick, but I was worried that it was really more something else."
Hillis responded with his best game. He stuffed the stat sheet almost as well as Ronnie Brewer puts numbers all the way across in a basketball box score.
Hillis carried three times for 14 yards for a team best 4.7 average. He caught four passes for 41 yards, all in the second half. He was even better on special teams. He handled three punts flawlessly, making an impressive over-the-shadow catch and 27-yard return of a 48-yarder that Rob Park hammered into the wind. He also pinned the Rebels deep with a pair of open-field, in-your-face tackles on kickoffs after the UA's last two TDs, one of them a Hillis reception.
"How about those hits on the kickoff team," Nutt said of Hillis. "As far as on offense, he's just now learning his position. I think he has bought into the position now. He can be an All-American if he stays humble."
Hillis, off limits to interviews of late, seemed humble as he was swarmed by the media after the victory. He pointed to Dick's play as the key to the victory and was quick to mention the clutch receptions of Marcus Monk (5 catches for 63 yards, 2 TDs) and Cedric Washington (3 catches for 53 yards) as "big plays for us in the second half. Those were big plays, all of them and our wide receivers made tough plays."
Still, he knew it was probably his best all-around game. The way he side-stepped defenders on his four receptions helped the Hogs move the chains and stay on the field.
"Give Casey a lot of credit," Hillis said. "He stayed in the pocket in the second half, stepped up and delivered some great passes. He made plays. It's unbelievable what he did in the second half, all of those completions in a row."
As for his own play, Hillis agreed with his coach that he's just now feeling comfortable with the position.
"I see where the defense is coming from and the angles on those routes now," he said. "I can turn and know where they are going to be and let them slide past. I don't have to run over them, just let them miss. I've watched the film. I see where they are going to be on each route when I get the ball. It's about relaxing and let them take themselves out of the play.
"They say it's yards after the catch, but it doesn't have to be me running over them. You don't have to deliver a blow, just let their momentum take themselves out of making the tackle.
"That's about doing it over and over and learning the routes and the position. If you do it long enough, you start to get that feel for it."
Hillis smiled about his hits on the two kickoffs.
"That was coach (Bobby) Allen's idea," Hillis said. "I didn't know about how it would go, but it's great. It shows my versatility. Coach Allen asked me to do it. He said he wanted playmakers on the cover teams.
"I got down there untouched on the first one. The second one, I had to go through a shoulder to get to the return man. But I got to them square and able to give them something both times."
Peyton Hillis gave the Hogs something for four quarters in Oxford. No, Hillis gave them plenty.
CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET
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