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Ole Miss can’t solve Arkansas riddle

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Ole Miss has had some memorable wins since Hugh Freeze took over in 2012.

A bowl win over Pittsburgh in that first year signaled the Rebels were way ahead of schedule while signature wins these last three seasons have shown the Rebels can play with anybody and beat anybody in the most treacherous division in the nation’s most rugged conference.

That relevance has moved swiftly with Ole Miss combining for 19 wins the last two seasons with a national ranking as high as No. 3 and a Sugar Bowl win that’s just 10 months old. The Rebels broke through with that win over Alabama in 2014 and have beaten everybody else in the SEC West since then.

Except Arkansas.

For whatever reason, the Razorbacks have been Ole Miss’ kryptonite. A year after that improbable win in Oxford last season, Arkansas delivered the final punch in another heavyweight fight Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It tends to be even worse in Fayetteville, a place the Rebels have only won twice in 13 all-time trips.

But explaining the latest setback to Arkansas isn’t complicated.

Arkansas’ run-heavy offense has evolved with tight ends and receivers that are serious weapons in exploiting the middle of the field, an area Ole Miss is struggling to defend with its rotating linebackers and young secondary. And when Arkansas, which balanced its 229 yards passing with 200 rushing yards, had success on early downs, it kept the collective head of an Ole Miss defense struggling to stop the most basic plays at times spinning.

“We’re struggling to fit gaps,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “It’s something we’ve had issues with all year, and they create a lot of gaps for you to fit.  When they win first down, it really makes it difficult on calling a defense because they can do so many things out of their sets.”

Ole Miss’ defense got some stops in the second half, giving the offense numerous chances to take control. But far too often, Arkansas knew what was coming and pinned its ears back on a night when quarterback Chad Kelly was Ole Miss’ leading rusher (89 yards).

Arkansas intercepted Kelly once, had another pick negated by an offside penalty and could’ve had a couple more. When Kelly did have time late to find his usually reliable receivers, they had cases of the drops at the worst times.

Damore’ea Stringfellow and Van Jefferson had back-to-back drops before Ole Miss punted to start Arkansas’ winning touchdown drive with 6:59 left. Quincy Adeboyejo let one go through his hands on the first play of the Rebels’ final drive that could’ve gotten Ole Miss going.

“Thought our defense played well in the second half and gave our offense chances to take control of the game,” Freeze said. “We didn’t do that for a variety of reasons.”

With a second conference loss and Alabama looking virtually unbeatable, any hope Ole Miss was holding out to win the SEC West is all but gone, which is ironic since losses to this group from Fayetteville did the same thing to the Rebels in 2014 and last season.

Arkansas is a riddle for which Ole Miss still hasn’t found an answer.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer and college sports editor of The EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.