Photo by Stan Beall
Arkansas visits Ole Miss at 6:30 Saturday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. The Rebels are a touchdown favorite, but the best bet is that something goofy, zany, unpredictable and unforgettable is going to happen.
Put the Hogs and Rebels together on a football field and you can almost hear the ol’ redneck jokester saying, “Hey, y’all, watch this.”
It is one of the few matchups when coaches’ cliches may not be cliche enough.
“We know it’ll be a 60-minute game.”
“We have to be prepared for anything.”
You have no idea.
“Our guys are gritty and they’ll keep fighting no matter what the score is.”
Good idea because no lead is safe.
“We’re treating it like any other week. It’s football … the same game these guys have played all their lives.”
Nope. It’s not.
Dave Wommack coached on both sides of this series. Won a marathon with Arkansas. Lost the weirdest of all with Ole Miss.
“Unique life experiences,” Wommack calls those games.
The insanity goes back to at least 1960 in Little Rock.
In the final seconds of a 7-7 game, Ole Miss’ Allen Green kicked a field goal to win the game for the Rebels — but hold on. Referee Tommy Bell had blown a whistle just before the snap because of too much crowd noise. (Yeah, officials used to actually do that.) None of the players heard the whistle.
They lined up for another try, and what happened next depends on whose side you’re on. Ole Miss faithful say Green nailed another game-winner. Arkansas fans say the kick obviously sailed wide left. Some Hog fans swear the officials signaled it good when the ball was halfway to the goal posts. Ole Miss 10, Arkansas 7.
We’ve seen some doozies since.
1970: Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 22 in the Sugar Bowl at old Tulane Stadium
A month earlier, Arkansas had been undefeated and No. 2 in the nation. On Dec. 6, the Hogs lost 15-14 to unbeaten, top-ranked Texas in “the game of the century.” Texas beat Notre Dame to win the national title. Arkansas was rewarded a meeting with 13th-ranked Ole Miss and quarterback Archie Manning.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Archie once told me. “Arkansas was really big and really physical.”
Arkansas’ defense had allowed just 76 points and had held seven opponents to 7 points or less.
Ole Miss, which was 7-3 thanks to one-point losses to Kentucky and Alabama, jumped to a 24-6 lead in the second quarter.
“Then we just had to hold on,” Archie said. “It seemed like injuries were coming at us left and right.”
2001: Arkansas 58, Ole Miss 56 in seven overtimes in Oxford
Another Manning, Eli, played quarterback for Ole Miss. The game was 17-17 before the teams combined for 80 points in overtime.
Arkansas missed a 34-yard field goal in the second OT that would’ve ended it. Wommack was on the defensive staff at Arkansas. A year later, the Hogs played another seven-overtime game, this time against Kentucky, and won it, too.
2016: Arkansas 34, Ole Miss 30 in Fayetteville
Arkansas led 17-6 just 10 minutes into the game, which we have learned means nothing.
Quarterback Chad Kelly rallied the Rebels to a 30-27 lead midway of the fourth quarter. Arkansas won it with a touchdown in the final 3 minutes.
2017: Arkansas 38, Ole Miss 37 in Oxford
The Rebels led 31-7 late in the first half.
Same song, same verse. Arkansas won with a 34-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.
2018: Ole Miss 37, Arkansas 33 in Little Rock
Arkansas led 17-3 after a quarter and 33-24 after three. Ole Miss scored twice in the final 5 minutes to win.
Of course, we’ve saved the craziest of them all for last.
2015: Arkansas 53, Ole Miss 52 in overtime in Oxford
Ole Miss, which had defeated Alabama for the second consecutive year, was in position to win the SEC West Division with victories over Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State.
It was an offensive showcase, tied 17-17 at the half, 31-31 entering the fourth quarter and 45-45 at the end of regulation.
Ole Miss scored to take the lead in the first overtime series.
And then: Arkansas faced 4th and 25 at the Ole Miss 40.
“We played a three-deep, five underneath and rushed three,” says Wommack, who was the Rebels’ defensive coordinator. “And we played it just like I wanted us to.”
No one was open downfield, so quarterback Brandon Allen threw 14 yards to tight end Hunter Henry near the right sideline. As Henry caught it, Ole Miss cornerback Tony Bridges hit him and was wrestling him to the turf when Henry launched a grenade-toss backward lateral toward the middle of the field.
“I had actually stood up (in the press box) when I saw Tony wrap him up,” Wommack says. “I was like, ‘Thank goodness it’s over.’
“But that crazy lateral … it all boiled down to ‘Whose hands did it find?’ ”
That would be Arkansas running back Alex Collins, who led the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens in rushing in 2017.
Collins was standing there because he had been kept in the backfield on the play to help block Ole Miss’ best pass rusher, C.J. Johnson. Good call on the Hogs’ part because Johnson whipped the lineman and was headed for Allen.
When Collins grabbed the ball, he took off around left end where he was greeted with a perfect wall of blockers.
C.J. Hampton was a safety on the play.
“I saw the guy lateral the ball across the field,” says Hampton, who coaches safeties at Gulf Coast Community College. “I wasn’t even sure it was legal. I was a sophomore, and I’d never seen anything like that in my life. But I knew to chase the ball. We all did.”
Hampton helped cut Collins back toward the field where he was tackled inside the 10 — but apparently Collins thought he had to score, so he pushed the ball backward to keep it alive. An Arkansas receiver recovered it at the 11.
Arkansas scored two plays later to tie it and decided to go for two.
Wommack stood up again during the two-point try, thinking the game was over.
“(Defensive end) Marquise Haynes had (Allen) and forced him into a bad throw,” Wommack says. “I said, ‘Finally …’ But then I saw Marquise’s hand on Allen’s facemask and the flag come flying.”
Allen ran for the two-point conversion and the victory.
You want bizarre? Arkansas controlled the football for 41:03 of the 60-minute regulation. In 150 plays, neither team turned the ball over.
Wommack coached college football for 38 seasons.
“I’ve told people that out of the thousands of plays I’ve been involved in as a coach, that if I could pick one play in my career, that one with the lateral far outweighs any of the others,” Wommack says. “And for a lot of reasons. Ole Miss had never been to the SEC Championship game. We were in a pretty good position to do that. It just meant so much to so many.
“We had a national calibre team, no doubt about that.
But if you coach long enough, I guess you’ll see everything. I wish I could say that somebody messed up, didn’t do their job and that’s why it happened. But everybody did their job on that play. I couldn’t ask more from any of them.
“I’m a guy of faith, and it was like God kept telling me in that overtime, “Man, you aren’t going to win this one.’ It was just meant to be.”
Wommack is proud of how the Rebels didn’t fold after the crushing loss. Following a bye week, they beat LSU, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-3.
“Will I forget that play? Never,” Wommack says. “Can I live with it? Sure.”
Hampton refuses to watch the play again.
“It still breaks my heart to even think about it,” he says.
He despises the play so much, that he vows if and when he becomes a head coach one day he will not include it in his playbook.
“I don’t want to see it — ever. Not even by my own team.”