OXFORD – For a while, the start of the Hugh Freeze Era looked like it could be a repeat of a loss to a Football Championship Sub-division opponent reminiscent of Houston Nutt’s third year.
But Central Arkansas was no Jacksonville State.
Ole Miss got some key defensive stops and rallied from a 20-14 halftime deficit to beat the Bears 49-27 before 50,544 Vaught-Hemingway Stadium fans on Saturday evening.
After a month of no decision at quarterback, Bo Wallace may have taken a step closer to winning the job, but he still has ground to cover.
Wallace was 20 for 24 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception off a tipped pass but offset that with 82 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
“Bo started this game, and he will start the next one. Bo had a great game. I’ve always known he’s a gamer, and I thought he played well,” Freeze said.
But Barry Brunetti is still in the race.
“I’m not ready to say Barry’s out of it. He did some nice things too,” Freeze said.
When Wallace was out after getting an IV at halftime, Brunetti led a 70-yard touchdown drive capped with an 11-yard pass to tight end Jamal Mosley.
That score gave the Rebels (1-0) some breathing room with a 35-20 lead and put the pressure on UCA with 11 minutes, 42 seconds left in the game.
After the halftime deficit the Rebels scored 35 unanswered points to win going away.
Brunetti finished 5 for 7 passing for 66 yards. He rushed eight times for 59 yards and scored on an 11-yard run with 2:36 left to play.
Freeze knew he had a running quarterback in Brunetti but may have gotten more than he bargained for with Wallace’s effort on the ground.
“He chose to run the ball more than we anticipated, and he did it well,” Freeze said. “But he was totally gassed.”
So gassed was Wallace that he had to get an IV in the third quarter after he hit Donte Moncrief with a 53-yard touchdown pass for a 28-20 Ole Miss lead.
Tiring as it was, Wallace didn't apologize for running the ball as the passing quarterback.
“I’m going to take whatever they give me. If we run a read option, and they squeeze, I’m definitely going to pull it,” he said.
The Rebels played two quarterbacks in the first half, but just barely.
Wallace led two touchdown drives, and the offense seemed very much in control until the UCA speed started making plays in the backfield.
The Rebels were down 20-14 and seemed poised to take the lead late in the second quarter with a second-and-goal from the 3. But Randall Mackey took a shotgun snap and was dropped for a 6-yard loss. It was the first of four consecutive Ole Miss plays over two drives that ended in either a sack or tackle for loss.
The visit to the UCA 3 ended when normally reliable Bryson Rose pushed a 29-yard field goal attempt to the right.
UCA (0-1) went ahead with 8:24 left in the first half when Wynrick Smothers hit Al Lasker on a slant that covered 62 yards.
“I’m thrilled to get a win,” Freeze said. “Wins are important, I don’t care who they’re against or when they occur. The joy in that locker room is special. The kids are having a blast. It’s been a while since they’ve been able to rejoice.”