Arkansas shuts out No. 8 Ole Miss, becomes bowl-eligible
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas officials lowered the goal posts in anticipation of a second straight week of onrushing fans.
The rain-soaked Razorbacks faithful stayed in the bleachers this time, though the celebration in Fayetteville was every bit as emphatic as a week ago.
Led by Rohan Gaines' 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, Arkansas' rapidly improving defense forced six turnovers in a 30-0 win over No. 8 Mississippi on Saturday.
It was the second straight dominating defensive performance by the Razorbacks (6-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference), who ended a 17-game SEC losing streak with a 17-0 win over LSU last week. It also marked the school's first back-to-back conference shutouts since joining the SEC in 1992, earning Arkansas bowl eligibility for the first time in three seasons.
"I've been through the tough times, and it's tough not making a bowl game," Gaines said. "I think the seniors deserve all of this. We have great senior leadership; I feel like they deserve it all. They deserve the world, and we're trying our best to give it to them."
Martrell Spaight once again led the Razorbacks defense, finishing with 11 tackles. However, the senior linebacker had plenty of help as Arkansas forced Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace into four turnovers.
Wallace led Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) with 235 yards passing, also throwing two interceptions as the Rebels lost their third straight SEC game after opening the season with seven straight wins overall.
"I'm certain our confidence is probably not the same as it was a month ago," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
While the Rebels struggled without the injured Laquon Treadwell at wide receiver, the Razorbacks continued to put the disappointment and heartbreak of the post-Bobby Petrino era behind them with their second straight SEC win. They had lost 13 conference games in a row to open coach Bret Bielema's Arkansas career before wins the last two weeks.
As relieving as last week's win over LSU was, Saturday's victory was equally dominating.
The Razorbacks had three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, earning the school's first back-to-back shutouts since 2002. It's the first in back-to-back conference games since 1965 -- when the school was a member of the Southwest Conference -- and the win gave Arkansas two straight wins over ranked opponents for the first time since 2011.
"I mean, we won two games, but everybody forgets, one was ranked 17 and the other was ranked 8," Bielema said. "These are good teams we're beating. We're not just beating people."
Jonathan Williams had 81 yards rushing on 20 carries for the Razorbacks, giving the junior 1,013 yards on the ground for the season. Alex Collins added 79 yards rushing and a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to put Arkansas up 17-0.
Ole Miss began the game with an outside chance of still winning the SEC West, anchored by a defense the lead the country with an average of 11.9 points allowed per game. Those hopes, however, all but collapsed in the first half as Arkansas built a 17-0 lead and Wallace missed two series with a right ankle injury.
Even when Wallace was under center, the Rebels -- who outgained Arkansas 316-311 -- committed three first-half turnovers and were held to 12 yards rushing on 12 attempts.
"There was really not much our defense could have done," Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram said. "It's hard to depend on the defense so much, because they're out there so much. We can't win games if we can't put up points."
Ole Miss appeared on its way to finally scoring late in the third quarter, but Wallace lofted a pass into the end zone -- where Gaines snared the ball and followed a host of Razorbacks down the sideline for a touchdown to put Arkansas up 27-0.
The play was the longest for the Razorbacks since a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by Jerell Norton in 2007 against North Texas.
Arkansas played the second half without quarterback Brandon Allen, who injured his right hip in the second quarter. The junior finished 5-of-10 passing for 87 yards and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Keon Hatcher before his injury.
In addition to his 11 tackles, Spaight had a pass breakup, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble for the suddenly relevant Razorbacks.
"We just kept the faith," Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. "We believed that we were going through what we were going through for a purpose."