Little Rock, AR — The game hung in the balance as Jordan Ta’amu and the Ole Miss offense jogged toward the north end zone at War Memorial Stadium with two minutes left on the game clock , as did the trajectory of the Rebels’ season.
A daunting 97 yards stood between them and the end zone, between a win or a loss to a 1-5 Arkansas in a performance that he’d been as sloppy as the consistently pounding rain made the conditions. Ta’amu was calm, as was an offense that had been in this position before.
“I blocked out the noise,” Ta’amu said. “Everyone (in the huddle) knew who was going to win. Everyone knew we were going to drive down as soon as they punted.”
It began with an incomplete pass to Braylon Sanders. Ta’amu then hit A.J. Brown for 20 yards to get Ole Miss out of the back of its own end zone. Another incompletion to Sanders followed. Ta’amu then found Dawson Knox toward the Ole Miss sideline. Knox caught a block and some space, running down the the Arkansas 29.
“That was a big play by Knox,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “It was nice to see both the tight ends come alive and make some big plays tonight.”
The Rebels used both tight ends more than they have in any game this season.
Knox had two catches for 65 yards. Octavious Cooley caught a 61 yard touchdown. It gave Arkansas — a team that uses its tight ends masterfully — a taste of its own medicine in a way.
Ta’amu picked up 15 yards with his feet on the next play and stepped out of bounds at the Razorback 14. The play looked similar to many he made on the night. Ta’amu took advantage of the amount of man coverage Arkansas played against Ole Miss’ receivers. The Rebels used a number of designed runs for their quarterbacks and Ta’amu tucked it and ran more than he’s done in the past. Ta’amu totaled 141 yards on the night and was the Rebels’ leading rusher.
“He was really good with his feet tonight,” head coach Matt Luke said. “That was really effective for us.”
Scottie Phillips finished it off with a run of nine yards and then five more on the final play as he barreled into the end zone to put Ole Miss up 37-33 with 42 seconds left. The drive lasted eighty seconds and just seven plays were needed travel the 97 yards that potentially changed the course of the team’s season.
“I think this was one of the most complete games I have played,” Ta’amu said. “I made some mistakes in the first quarter, but bounced back and started playing smarter football.”
Ta’amu accounted for 528 yards of total offense — second most in school history behind Archie Manning’s 540 yard performance in 1969 against Alabama.
The march was similar to a game-winning drive Ta’amu conducted at Kentucky last year, a game that followed a crushing defeat to Arkansas the week prior and helped vault the Rebels to a 3-1 finish to end the year.
“It so so similar to Kentucky,” Ta’amu said. “Everyone was telling us we’d been there before and that we know what to do.”
Ole Miss looked like it was dead to rights in this game on multiple occasions. It fell behind 17-3 early in the game. The defense couldn’t stop anyone and the offense was sputtering near the red zone. It looked like much of the same. The offense struggled against another SEC defense and the Ole Miss defense had given up over 300 yards by halftime
“I am proud of how the guys kept fighting,” Matt Luke said. “It was a struggle for us to get off the field, but we kept battling. I didn’t think we played our best football in the first half.”
Arkansas did not punt through the first three quarters. The defense lost Vernon Dasher to targeting and Markel Winters to injury. Arkansas had the football up 33-24 with 13:47 left in the game after Luke Logan missed a 28 yard field goal, his second of the night. The Razorbacks had scored on every drive. The defense found a way to force a punt.
“That is what you have to do in the SEC,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “You have make adjustments. Everything is not going to be perfect. You have to fight and you have to play with confidence.”
The offense drove the ball 84 yards for a touchdown to cut it to 33-31. The defense parlayed that into another stop, highlighted by a pass break up over the middle on third down by linebacker Willie Hibbler. It gave Ole Miss a chance. The 97-yard drive ensued and Zedrick Woods sealed the game by intercepting a Cole Kelley pass with 29 seconds remaining.
“The third down stop by Willie Hibbler was unbelievable McGriff said. “That is probably the best play he’s made since we have been together. And Zedrick Woods kept telling me he was going to get the touchdown he gave up back. He certainly did.”
This was an important win for a team that now sits at 5-2 with three home games left in its season. A loss and the prognosis would’ve been dire. It would’ve been hard to peg another win on the schedule. In a series that has seen Ole Miss come out on the short end of the stick over the last half decade — the 97-yard drive by the offense seemingly flipped the script.
The first seven games have been far from a beautiful for a team that has its fair share of issues and shortcomings. But the fact of the matter is that the Rebels are still on the same trajectory that most prognosticators carved out before the season began. Five wins and two losses to the likes of Alabama and LSU.
The outlook on the remaining five games now looks a lot more digestible than it did when the Ole Miss offense jogged towards the north end zone with two minutes left and the entire field in front of it.
“I am just glad we are finally on the winning side of this game,” Luke said. “We kept fighting and found a way.”