State of the Hogs: Winning at Ole Miss was better than close

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1 a.m.

OXFORD, Miss. -- There may be some doubt about what happens after halftime the rest of this season, but for one week the second half belonged to the Arkansas football team and coach Bret Bielema.

The Razorbacks left another team wondering how things could get worse in the second half on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The 38-37 victory over Ole Miss gave Bielema a chance to say the Hogs were no longer just close.

"I know you guys get your panties in a wad with me talking about being close," he said. "But we have been. We were close against A&M. We were close in the fourth quarter against TCU."

Bielema did trot out the famous line about close only counting in horse shoes and hand grenades, but the Razorbacks seemed like they had fallen on the grenade in the first half against the Rebels. They'd given up 363 yards and trailed 31-7 early in the second quarter.

Things finally turned for the Razorbacks just when it looked like it was going to get worse. The Rebels hit another big play -- the seventh of more than 25 yards -- on a pass that had backup tight end Octavious Cooley galloping with the ball in the open field. Santos Ramirez stripped the ball away from Cooley, then recovered it just before tumbling out of bounds at the end of the 31-yard play.

"Biggest play of the year," Bielema said. "Sometimes all it takes is one play to turn things for someone 18-to 22-years old. Literally one play."

In the end, it was four straight kicks by sophomore Connor Limpert - all good - that determined the outcome. Ole Miss called timeout on the first three. Limpert's fourth one was probably the most center-cut of the bunch and the 34-yard field goal sealed the comeback.

The first one was the only less-than-perfect kick. It was probably 4 feet inside the upright. The only question was whether holder Reid Miller would handle all of Robert Decker's snaps. The third and final snaps were just a little off.

"I think that last one was a little low, but Reid got it fine," Limpert said. "We practice bad snaps actually and he always gets them."

The protection held up, too. Guard Hjalte Froholdt was worried about that.

"They put four guys on me," he said. "I think they knocked me and Brian Wallace on our backs, about 4 yards deep. The next thing I knew, our guys were celebrating. We'll celebrate tonight, too."

After Miller raised up to see the last kick in the middle of the uprights, he celebrated with Limpert for 20 yards.

"That's about how far he took me," Limpert said.

Froholdt said it wasn't so much of a second-half comeback, although there were plenty of things in place to change the mojo for the Hogs after halftime.

"We really started it in the first half," he said. "That's where the comeback started. The defense made plays to turn things around. Cole Kelley made some plays, too. So did our offensive line.

"I know we had a lot to overcome today, but it started at the first of the week. We lost a big part of our team in Frank (Ragnow). Losing him to injury was tough. He's a big piece to our offensive line. Losing Frank did bring an extra sense of urgency to our entire group and our entire team.

"We had to overcome adversity starting Monday. And from one tackle to the other tackle, all of us did some good things today. We made some mistakes. I made mistakes. But we just kept battling, one play at a time."

The Hogs have slumped badly in the second half often in Bielema's five years at Arkansas. In fact, Saturday's win was the first in which the Razorbacks won under Bielema when they trailed at halftime.

The second-half struggles were at their worst over the last two games of last season when Arkansas lost halftime leads of 17 and 24 against Missouri and Virginia Tech.

Asked if the coaches tried to change things up this week for a better second half, Bielema said, "Hell, yeah."

They stopped practice after 12 periods during the week and brought out the chalk board to make adjustments. The strength and conditioning staff added a new stretching period that changed things to start the half.

"We brought in music," Bielema said. "I hope my mentors don't talk about me too much if it gets back to them. I'll bring in a (disc jockey) if we have to.

"But it wasn't anything magical. It was about making plays."

Ramirez wasn't the only defender to step up. Safety Josh Liddell set up one touchdown with a 54-yard interception return to set-up a touchdown just before halftime that pulled Arkansas within 31-21.

Nickel back Kevin Richardson had a scoop and 22-yard return for a touchdown with 6:01 to play that pulled the Razorbacks within 37-35. Bielema thought defensive end Sosa Agim was charging on an inside stunt on that play to make the quarterback mishandle the handoff on that play. The Hogs seemed to improve their run defense after Agim came off the bench to start the second quarter.

"Sosa was coming on that play," said Bielema, who said the sophomore missed the first quarter after coming late to a meeting on Wednesday.

The Hogs fixed some alignment issues up front at halftime.

"They were out-gapping us in the first half," Ramirez said, noting the fixes came from defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads.

"They were just simple runs, but they pulled a guard and had an extra blocker. We got that fixed."

Ramirez said there were no concerns about Limpert on the game-winner.

"Not on our sideline," he said. "He's not a regular kicker. He's got a swagger to him. He didn't doubt his ability to make it and neither did we."

Limpert said all of the extra kicks he got when Ole Miss attempted to ice him just put him in a groove.

"I like getting the extra practice," he said. "I was telling our guys, 'No problem.' I felt that way. I'm pretty confident."

Bielema said Limpert came to him during the series of breaks with one phrase over and over. He just told me, "I gotcha coach."

Limpert said, "I told that to Coach Bielema and Tanner Burns."

Bielema said he responded to Limpert during one of those breaks, "Amen, brother."

Burns organizes kicking practices as quality control coach for the special teams.

"I wanted to talk in the breaks," Limpert said. "I wanted Tanner to know I was going to make it and our players."

There were some solid plays on special teams. Freshman De'Vion Warren returned five kickoffs for 141 yards, including one for 45 yards. The best thing the Hogs did was contain the last play of the game with a series of laterals by the Rebels on a squib kick.

With some of the crazy finishes the Hogs have had in Oxford, no one was ready to breath easy. But when the whistle blew, the Hogs went crazy.

It will be back to work on Sunday when preparations for Coastal Carolina begin. It's the last nonconference game before an SEC finish with LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri, the latter two in Fayetteville. Bielema doesn't want to do anything but go for a 1-0 week.

"That's what we had to do, go back to our core beliefs, try to start fast and finish strong," he said. "We didn't start fast, but we did finish strong.

"I go back to before the Auburn game. Some guys were talking about finishing 8-4. The only way to do that is to get to three wins. It's fundamental. Now, just go on to Coastal Carolina."

Froholdt said almost the same thing.

"We are a 3-5 team now," he said. "We were in a three-week downward spiral. A lot of things have happened. We lost Frank to injury this week. Last week, (offensive coordinator Dan) Enos lost his dad. Coach Enos said it's tough to get over the hump when doubt creeps in. We got over the hump today.

"Yes, it was a really emotional game. That's why you saw us storm the field.

"It's a great win, but we are still just a 3-5 team. We can't relax. We have to move forward; just play the next game.

"I know some of what we are talking about is playing a good second half. That's not really all of what it was today. We started that comeback in the first half. Our defense made some plays against a really explosive Ole Miss offense, really explosive. That's what got it going, the first half."

The second-half narrative was hard to ignore. Can we call these second-half Razorbacks? Bielema was asked that hard-to-imagine question as he walked away from the microphones in the interview room.

Bielema did a double take, then flashed his biggest smile of the season. He paused just a bit, then said, "Absolutely."

For at least one week, the Razorbacks flipped the script.

Sports on 10/29/2017