OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Matt Luke got the quick offensive improvement he wanted to see.
After a season-opening struggle at Memphis in which the Rebels ran only 53 plays, they totaled 483 yards and finished strong in a 31-17 win over Arkansas in the first SEC and home game.
The Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd watched running back Scottie Phillips rush for 143 yards and two touchdowns while the Rebels’ defense limited the Razorbacks to 10 points.
Arkansas (1-1, 0-1 SEC) was down 31-10 when it scored on Nick Starkel’s 6-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute, 21 seconds left.
Phillips’ second score came on a 26-yard run and gave Ole Miss (1-1, 1-0 SEC) a 31-10 lead after the PAT with 6:31 to go.
“I thought both sides of the ball had good plans, and I thought the players played really, really hard,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “The first drive we looked much more comfortable. We didn’t look out of sync.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral, who was 9-for-19 passing in his first start at Memphis, was 16 for 24 for 246 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.
The win snapped a six-game losing streak over two seasons for Ole Miss. The Rebels had not won since a 37-33 victory against Arkansas in Little Rock last October.
In a series known for bizarre twists and turns Arkansas got back in the game with a 69-yard fumble return for a touchdown by safety Kamren Curl.
The Rebels were in plus territory and were driving for a possible three-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Corral made a late down-field lateral to tight end Octavious Cooley. Cooley, whose fumble here in 2017 was the launching point for the Razorbacks’ 24-point comeback win, was surrounded by Arkansas players trying to strip away the ball. Curl was successful and got the recovery too. His touchdown made it 17-10 with 13:31 remaining.
“It was shades of 2017 there with Cooley and the fumble, but I told him this is a different team, a different year. We’re going to get your back,” Luke said.
The Rebels got their two-possession lead back minutes later when Corral hit Elijah Moore in the middle of the field. Moore reversed his field back to the left to complete a 46-yard touchdown play.
The Rebels’ defense allowed 107 rushing yards to Rakeem Boyd in less than one half of play last season.
This time Boyd was held to 67 yards on 17 carries, an average gain of 3.9 yards.
The Razorbacks found more consistency on offense after Starkel relieved starting quarterback Ben Hicks. Both are transfers. Starkel was the starter when Texas A&M won here in 2017. He finished with 201 passing yards and 17-for-24 efficiency, but 75 of those came on the 81-yard drive when the game had been decided.
With offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez seeking a faster start for his unit there was more pre-snap movement and more effort to get the ball to playmakers in space.
The Rebels ran 42 plays in the first half.
They outgained Arkansas 240-137 which created the feeling that a 10-3 lead could have been larger.
Corral was 10-for-17 passing in the half, and the Rebels’ defense held Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd to 29 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.
“This was a big game,” Luke said. “People were saying on Monday it was must-win. I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s been a battle to get out from under the cloud we’d been under. It was good for our fans to have an exciting night in our stadium to build on and move forward.”