During a 2016 campaign in which the Ole Miss Rebels have been haunted by an inability to finish games, it only makes sense that their postseason aspirations were conclusively dashed by yet another late-game collapse.
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly passed for 253 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another 89 yards and two scores. This performance allowed the Rebels to mount a second-half comeback, but ultimately it was not enough. The team squandered a late lead, capping a forgettable night for a defense that allowed 200 yards both through the air and on the ground. The end result was a 34-30 defeat at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The loss shined light on a series of continuing themes for the Rebels.
The embattled linebacker corps continues to allow opposing backfields to run wild, this time with Arkansas sophomore Rawleigh Williams III torching the defense for 187 yards on 27 carries. Williams also hauled in two catches for 18 yards and a touchdown, in what was easily the most productive performance of the first-year starter’s college career.
A disappearing rushing attack of its own also hindered Ole Miss in this loss, a troubling sign for a team that delivered its best rushing performance of the past two seasons against Memphis in its last appearance. Two weeks removed from an outing in which the Rebels produced a pair of 100-yard rushers, the backfield was essentially nonexistent on Saturday. Take away Kelly’s 89 rushing yards, and Ole Miss amassed only 61 yards on 17 carries from Akeem Judd and Eugene Brazley.
And of course, there was the collapse — albeit much later than usual, but disheartening all the same.
In each of their two losses this season, the Rebels have surrendered three-touchdown leads — first to Florida State in the season opener, then two weeks later against Alabama. They seemed to have moved on from this dark place with a pair of convincing victories, but old habits returned to the fray this week.
For a moment on Saturday, Ole Miss was the one mounting a double-digit comeback. After falling behind 17-6 early in the second quarter, the Rebels progressively climbed back into the game, taking a 30-27 lead on a 17-yard touchdown run by Kelly with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Then it happened.
Ole Miss forced a punt on the ensuing possession, setting up a chance to put the game away. The offense proceeded to go three-and-out, with Kelly nearly throwing an interception on first down, and his receivers dropping catchable balls on the next two plays.
Arkansas rattled off a 56-yard go-ahead touchdown drive with 2:20 left, and Kelly lost the ball on a fourth-down scramble — ending any long-shot SEC title hopes the Rebels were clinging to.
“I thought our defense gave them cheap scores early on, which was frustrating,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
“We got that fixed and I thought our defense played well in the second half and gave our offense chances to take control of the game. We didn’t do that for a variety of reasons, whether it was a poor call, whether it was poor protection, whether it was uncharacteristically critical drops that really changed the last two possessions where we had chances to, one, take control of the game, and, two, go down and win it. Those were critical and it really hurt.”
As painful as the early losses to Florida State and Alabama were, the Rebels found a silver lining in these games, realizing that they have the potential to beat any team in the country.
This collapse to an Arkansas team that was on the verge of an 0-3 start in SEC play provides no such solace.