Rohan Gaines spent the entire last week knowing he’d miss the first half of Arkansas’ game against Ole Miss. He studied film, mentoring his proxy, freshman Josh Liddell, for what he’d see from quarterback Bo Wallace in preparation for his starting role.
Gaines had to stay off the field for 30 minutes because of his ejection for targeting in last week’s win against LSU. He spent that time alone in the team’s equipment room, watching the study pay dividends on the in-house monitors.
When he finally made his debut in the third quarter, it was evident. The man whose Twitter handle was @PickSixTwoSix made good on it.
Gaines returned an errant Wallace pass 100 yards, end zone to end zone, for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to signal a rout was on in Fayetteville. Arkansas ultimately picked up a 30-0 shutout, with Gaines’ play the most memorable. This time for the right reasons.
"I was just being patient," Gaines said. "Film study allowed me to play that route. I saw it on film, and I remember it and just played it."
Gaines leaped at the goal line and came down with the ball. He sprinted 50 yards, five blockers in front of him, veering at midfield toward the middle before cutting back toward the edge, sending the last man to beat into a carousel. He was out of energy the final 10 yards. An Ole Miss player dove at Gaines near the end zone, knocking the ball free. The officials conferred, but ruled it still counted as a score.
"I’ve never been that happy to be that gassed," Gaines said.
He and the defense picked up the team’s first consecutive shutouts since 2002. Paired with last week’s 17-0 win against the then-No. 17 Tigers, the back-to-back zeroes are the first time that’s happened against consecutive ranked opponents since 1965.
They had all three Ole Miss quarterbacks rattled. Wallace, the starter and preseason second-team All-SEC pick, threw two interceptions and lost two more fumbles. He left the game for a period early in the second quarter with a minor ankle injury suffered on the first fumble. After a final series to start the fourth quarter, he was yanked for good. His replacements, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, didn’t fare any better, combining to go 2 of 7 for 18 yards and an interception.
Gaines was a big part of it. He’d come under fire, like many of his defensive teammates, from both fans and coaches over the last couple of seasons. Head man Bret Bielema recalled a conversation he’d had with Gaines in the summer, telling the safety, in more words, to play for the Razorbacks, not for himself.
"Our guys carried around water jugs to stress hydration; all summer you’d see guys walking around with these milk jugs," Bielema said. "I grabbed (Gaines) one day because his milk jug said, like, ‘First round, second round, third round, fourth round.’ I said ‘Bro, what are you doing? Why don’t you try being the Arkansas safety here first before you jump into the NFL?’ I think he finally gets that now."
Arkansas forced six Ole Miss turnovers — three fumbles, three interceptions — against the team that entered fifth in Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin. Over the last six Arkansas games, the team’s given up an average of 284 yards. That total would be good for sixth-best in the country. The 12 points per game allowed in the same span would be good for the best mark.
Gaines’ interception was the first of his career. And accordingly, his first touchdown. He’d only had one pick even in high school, where he mostly played quarterback. His roommate, defensive end Trey Flowers, had given him a hard time about the Twitter handle because of it.
"I kind of got onto him," Flowers said. "But he ended up changing it this weekend and actually got him one. He came out there, he was locked in, tuned in and made some big plays."
He changed it to @HitManGaines_26. Three plays before his score, Gaines leveled Ole Miss Jaylen Walton.
"In my head this week, I’m like, I haven’t got a pick six yet, so I changed it. I changed it to hitmangaines or something like that," Gaines said. "So, I mean … I’m going to keep it hitmangaines. That’s working out pretty good for me."