The weekend before Halloween seemed like quite the opportune moment for Arkansas's freakish horror show of a season to reach its essential terminus, and Ole Miss, led by a backup transfer quarterback, bolted to a 31-7 lead early in the second quarter. You'd have been foolish to stay awake for the remainder of this 11 a.m. snoozer, right?
Things got a little squirrelly after that, and stayed that way. The Hogs pecked at the deficit late in the quarter, turning a fumble and an interception return into two short fields for Cole Kelley to utilize. The redshirt freshman quarterback did so effectively, drawing the Hogs within 31-21 at the half with his legs (15-yard scramble for six) and then his arm (a well-designed out to Deon Stewart that turned into a 23-yard score). And then the Hogs opened the second half with another Kelley scoring strike, this one to Cheyenne O'Grady, and suddenly that deficit was nearly erased ... all by a team that is well known for not coming back from the dead.
Ole Miss smacked home a couple of field goals, stretching the lead back to nine points, and when Arkansas ceded possession to the Rebelsharkthings with 6 minutes to play, it appeared that an unexpectedly gutsy rally was going to fall short. But things got weirder: a mishandled exchange between quarterback and tailback led to Kevin Richardson getting the easiest scoop-and-score on record, the Hogs were within 37-35 suddenly, and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium suddenly was hushed.
By now, you know that Arkansas held Ole Miss, got the ball with a little over 4 minutes left, and efficiently marched its way down to the 14-yard line to allow Connor Limpert to knock in the biggest field goal of his short career, a 32-yarder that gave the Hogs a wild 38-37 win. But what you don't know is what effect this victory will have on Bret Bielema's future, and I can't pretend to know it either, but if you are one of the ever-shrinking cadre of fans that is loyal to the fifth-year coach for any reason, you probably feel like he's given himself a new lease on life.
I don't buy that, necessarily. It's ironic that the Hogs finally won a game where they trailed at halftime to get rid of Bielema's goose egg there, because to be honest, they still played poorly for stretches against a mediocre Ole Miss team being led by a lame duck interim coach. You can't just casually look past giving a first-time starting quarterback a monster game and letting a couple of lightly regarded tailbacks blister you on the ground. You can't feel good about the fact that the team had to really grind to get over 400 total yards for the first time in a month.
Bielema probably wasn't going to get fired if Limpert had yanked his game-winner wide of the mark, even if that would've left him with a 2-6, 0-5 season tally. Yet I suspect that he might well have been discharged after losing to LSU or Mississippi State in November. Now, at 3-5, 1-4, the team remains in the hunt for bowl eligibility and the sales pitch Bielema can use if this team finishes 6-6 or even 7-5 is that once again, the Hogs closed strong (a la 2014-15) and overcame injuries that shelved their leading returning rusher, their senior All-SEC caliber quarterback, their top returning wideout, and the cornerback who broke out last fall. Just think of how things might've turned out with a healthy squad! And, oh my, don't forget that this is alleged to be the hardest schedule on the planet each year!
You mustn't fall for it. Arkansas beat a terrible, depleted Ole Miss by a single point, on the heels of losing three prior SEC games in October by a combined 90 points. It is entirely possible that, by beating hapless Sun Belt bottom-feeder Coastal Carolina, the team gets a sense of swagger and sees the LSU game as an opportunity to make a statement at Death Valley the same way it did in 2015. But the stakes, the cast of characters, and the attitude surrounding the program are far different now than they were two years ago.
For a week, though, all the controversy can and should be iced down. For all his faults and failures, Bielema has owned Ole Miss nicely, with four straight victories over the rivals in Oxford and the last three of those being nail-biting material. If these guys can be inordinately clutch against the Rebels, then some psychological deception is in order to make them think they're hearing Hotty Toddy in their sleep.