OXFORD, Miss. — Holding high a towel to prevent Arkansas coaches in the press box from stealing the plays signaled in from the Ole Miss sideline, the man wasted his time.
The quarterback’s uniform number is a two-digit heads-up. Designated passer Bo Wallace is No. 14 and run-first Barry Brunetti is No. 11. The passer did in Arkansas in the first half on Saturday and the runner set the table for his partner in production in the second half. There was nothing new about their roles.
Prior to Saturday, Wallace had thrown three times as many passes as he had rushes, including many where he had no choice but to keep, and Brunetti’s plays were split 50-50.
Not a fan of the two-quarterback system, I appreciate the collaboration that produced Ole Miss 34, Arkansas 24, a result with plenty of repercussions:
• The Rebels qualified for a bowl game for the second straight year;
• The Razorbacks were mercifully eliminated from the postseason picture;
• For the second week in a row, the Arkansas defense might be the facilitator for the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. Last week, Auburn’s Tre Mason ran wild. This week, Wallace was 17-of-20 in the first half and finished with 26-of-33 for a career-high 407 yards with an asterisk attached to note that Wallace is far from the best passer Arkansas has faced this year. Still, in the final three minutes of the first half, he was 6-of-6 for 70 yards and the touchdown that upped the lead to 10.
Wallace is the sixth straight SEC quarterback who has recorded a high completion percentage vs. the Razorbacks.
Even during the final five minutes, when the Rebels’ lead was down to 10, Ole Miss felt more comfortable throwing than running. Throwing from his 20, Wallace completed a 23-yarder and followed up with two more completions.
Infatuation with the pass cuts both ways and a desperate Wallace threw a fourth-down floater that was intercepted by Eric Bennett, who returned it more than 70 yards. Most of the play was wiped out by a penalty and Arkansas had to start from its 7.
Before Brandon Allen completed his third pass, many Ole Miss fans, infected with a hint of desperation, were on their feet and they didn’t start celebrating until Zach Hocker’s 58-yard field goal attempt was wide right. Maybe being in the game in the final minute is what Bret Bielema means when he talks about his team making progress that can be detected only by those inside the inner sanctum.
Also positive was twice reducing a 10-point deficit to three.
Arkansas was in the game at 20-17 in the third quarter with a first down at the Razorbacks’ 47, courtesy of Javontee Herndon’s 31-yard punt return. Two running plays netted 12 yards before Arkansas decided to get cute. Allen handed the ball to Jonathan Williams, who headed right and continued to his left. The Rebels sniffed out the throwback to the quarterback and Williams was engulfed for a 9-yard loss.
Allen’s too-high pass to Herndon ruined the timing on a bubble screen on third down.
Still, after another effective punt by Sam Irwin-Hill, one defensive stop would return Arkansas to a prime position. However, on third-and-1, Brunetti faked and kept for a big first down at the Ole Miss 19 and then ran for 6 more before giving way to Wallace.
The Rebels had had success throwing into the flat to a receiver maneuvering behind a wide receiver although Bennett had nailed such a completion for no gain on the previous possession. This time, Wallace looked left and gave an abbreviated arm fake. By that time, Ja-Mes Long was behind Bennett and Wallace delivered.
The loser of seven straight, Arkansas has two games left without any tangible goals at stake. Competing full bore solely in the name of pride will test coaches and players.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.