University of Arkansas football fans thought for a moment Saturday night that they were going to hand their former head coach perhaps his most crushing loss ever.
Razorback special teams star Aaron Fenton recovered an onside kick right in front of the Ole Miss bench with 1:03 left – a play that sent the home partisans in a crowd of 74, 168 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium into pandemonium.
Although it was first ruled out of bounds before being overturned on video review, that recovery gave the Razorbacks – down by just two points – a chance from near midfield to win the game on either a touchdown or field goal.
But four plays later a 4th-and-25 incomplete pass fell harmlessly to the ground as Houston Nutt and Ole Miss slipped away with a 23-21 win over Arkansas before the fifth largest crowd in stadium history.
"It's a tough way to lose a game," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "I thought our players really stuck in there and competed and worked hard. We had mistakes early in the first half and late in the first half and they always come back to haunt you.
"Our players have got to keep their heads up, understand that they played and left everything out on the field, really dug down deep and gave everything they had," Petrino added.
Arkansas appeared to complete a 32-yard pass to London Crawford to the Ole Miss 21, but the Razorback receiver was called for offensive pass interference.
"We had a great completion down the sideline, went up and caught the ball in his hands and they called offensive PI," Petrino said. "I think everyone watched the replay and knows that he did a great job elevating and catching the ball...That's all I can say about it."
Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick also thought that Crawford shouldn't have been called for interference.
"I thought he had it," Dick said. "I saw him go up and make the grab and the stadium went nuts. I thought he had it. It was a tough call to swallow, but the official called what he saw so there was no disputing it."
It left the Razorbacks heartbroken in the locker room.
"If you would have seen the guys in the locker room after this one you would know it hurt," Williams said. "All we can do is come back and keep giving it our all. We're playing hard and we just need to continue to do that."
After struggling offensively for most of the game, the Arkansas offense picked it up in the fourth quarter when Dick hit Greg Childs and Lucas Miller on touchdown passes in the final five minutes.
As it turned out, Joshua Shene's 28-yard field goal with 1:48 - in between those two Razorback scores - proved to the be the winning points for the Rebels (4-4, 2-3).
"I am really happy for our team," Nutt said. "This was a hard fought victory. (Arkansas) has a lot of good players and I love them. I love my team right now, but it is hard not to love players that you recruited and coached. You are close to them and you have been in their living rooms so it was harder than I thought.
"There was a lot of effort on both sides of the ball and man what a great game to watch," Nutt added.
Michael Smith had 19 carries for 129 yards rushing and D.J. Williams a career-high 10 catches for 129 yards to lead Arkansas (3-5, 1-4), who was down 20-7 – the same score they were up the previous week at Kentucky before losing.
The Razorbacks put themselves in position to win after a 97-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter.
Dick's 8-yard touchdown pass to Lucas Miller on 4th and 7 cut it to 20-14 with 4:28 remaining.
"I knew we were going to win it at that point," Smith said. I had one of those feelings. Everbody did. We were all pumped up."
At that point, the Ole Miss fans began chanting Houston Nutt while Arkansas fans followed with a chant of Bobby.
Both groups of fans then got their money's worth in the final 105 seconds.
Shene's field goal looked like it might salt it away, but the Razorbacks roared down the field, covering 71 yards in just four plays and 38 seconds to score when Childs came up with a great catch in the end zone with 1:07 remaining.
That cut it to 23-21 and then Fenton jumped on Alex Tejeda's onside kick, but then couldn't pull off the storybook ending.
"It's tough when you see those young men prepare well, compete, play hard and then suffer the loss," Petrino said. "We're going to grow up and learn how to win close games. I'm very proud of this team's attitude."
Snead was 14-of-27 passing for 209 yards with the two scores and a pick.
He said his team fed off the energy of the Arkansas crowd.
"I think we were really able to feed off of it," Snead said. "I love being in a place where they don't like you and I think it really got me and the team excited."
Dick was 20-of-38 for 282 yards with two scoring tosses and an interception while absorbing 3 sacks that resulted in 18 lost yards.
Smith played despite being hurt last week and being limited in practice.
"Every indication I received from the trainers told me he would play tonight unless he suffered a setback," Petrino said. "He looked a hundred percent out there tonight. He's a great player with a huge heart."
Williams was a factor once again after being very limited with his movement at Kentucky due to an injury.
"D.J. had a great week of practice and in tonight's game his health was better, his speed was better and we saw what a healthy D.J. Williams could do," Petrino said. "A week ago he was playing on heart."
Another player who had an outstanding game for the Razorbacks was senior punter Jeremy Davis, who punted 6 times for 45.3 yards per boot, had two punts over 50 yards and twice pinned Ole Miss inside the 20.
"He's doing a really nice job for us," Petrino said. "We've been working on his drop, but he's always had a nice leg to kick those long punts."
Petrino noted that the fans did their part.
"The crowd was explosive from the minute we arrived at the stadium," Petrino said. "I have been extremely impressed with fans and how they have supported us in some tough losses this season."
Williams said he knew the fans were revved up because of Nutt's return, but hopes it can be like that at each game from now on.
"They were great tonight," Williams said. "We need that kind of support week in and week out. I realize a lot of people saw tonight as a special game, and it was, but we need that kind of support each week."
Arkansas had a chance to take the lead on its first possession of the game on the strength of a 41-yard pass-and-run from Dick to Williams that flipped the field.
But the drive bogged down and Shay Haddock's 34-yard field goal attempt was off the mark.
Ole Miss countered with its own big play – a 25-yard toss from Snead to Mike Wallace (5 catches, 120 yards) – that eventually set up Shene's 39-yard boot that put the visitors up 3-0 with 4:47 left in the opening quarter.
The Razorbacks would take the lead early in the second quarter on a 11-play, 70-yard march.
Dick's 23-yard pass to Joe Adams converted a 3-and-13 early in the drive. Eventually Smith raced untouched from the 13, which combined with Haddock's PAT boosted Arkansas ahead 7-3 with 11:25 left in the second quarter.
Ole Miss took a 10-7 lead on Snead's 9-yard touchdown on Shay Hodge with 1:58 remaining.
Arkansas moved past midfield, but Fog Ingram picked off Dick and returned it 38 yards and returned it to the 10.
Dick hauled down Ingram to keep him from scoring, but it left two seconds for Shene to boot a 34-yard and give the Rebels a 13-7 lead at halftime.
Arkansas will host a second former coach next Saturday when unbeaten Tulsa (7-0) and former Arkansas offensive coordinator and current Tulsa co-OC Gus Malzahn comes to Fayetteville.
The Golden Hurricane play Central Florida on Sunday night.
Adrian Davis (knee), Ray Dominguez (ankle), Grant Cook (knee), Elton Ford and Matt Harris all suffered injuries and had to leave the game.
"My main concern going into the next game is the injuries," Petrino said. "We got beat up out there and we'll have some injuries to deal with."
Ole Miss 23, Arkansas 21
Hawgs Daily Top Stories
Scout 2017 Rankings DirectoryThe Scout positional, state, regional, national and team rankings for the Class of 2017...
2017 Signing Day announcement scheduleComplete list of announcement times for the most high-profile uncommitted recruits in 2017.
Scout's Top 25 Recruiting ClassesA look at Scout's top 25 classes with just over a week to go to Signing Day.
Weekend Official Visit PrimerScout takes a look at the biggest visitors for the upcoming weekend in the Power 5 conferences...
Curl Feels 'Comfortable' with ArkansasKamren Curl picked Arkansas during a press conference ceremony at Muskogee High School on Thursday.