OXFORD, Miss. — Bret Bielema came to Arkansas last December to begin building a program that would win the school’s first Southeastern Conference championship.
It’s hard to predict when — or if — the Razorbacks will ever accomplish his goal.
But the first year of the journey now includes some historical lows.
Arkansas suffered a 34-24 loss at Ole Miss in front of an announced crowd of 60,856 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The Razorbacks put together their best offensive performance in weeks — they even had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter — but couldn’t avoid falling to 0-6 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since joining the conference while dropping their seventh straight game overall.
The seven-game losing streak eliminates Arkansas from postseason contention for the second straight year. It also equals the longest losing skid in school history. It also happened in 1990 and between the 1952 and 1953 seasons.
“It’s going through some really dark days to get where we want to be,” said Bielema, who was visibly frustrated Saturday. “Hopefully that day comes sooner than later.”
The latest disappointment included many of the same problems that have plagued Arkansas since its last win, which came on Sept. 14.
Arkansas’ showed signs of progress once again. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen completed more than 50 percent of his passes (18-of-32) for the first time since returning from his shoulder injury in late September. He threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns, which were his best marks since the SEC opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 28.
But the offense — which also produced its highest point total since the 45-33 loss to Texas A&M — couldn’t make the plays when it mattered most. The best example came after Arkansas cut Ole Miss’ lead to 20-17 on senior fullback Kiero Small’s touchdown run, stopped Ole Miss’ offense, and got a 31-yard punt return from Javontee Herndon.
The Razorbacks moved to Ole Miss’ 39 after 11- and 9-yard runs by Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, respectively. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney called for a halfback pass — which the Razorbacks have run several times this season — but the play didn’t work.
Williams was dropped for a 9-yard loss and the drive soon ended.
“It’s kind of hit or miss with those kind of things,” Allen said. “It could have been a huge play. It could have been a negative play. There’s some chances you’ve kind of got to take like that. We kind of missed on that one. It happens.”
Bielema didn’t second-guess it, either. But the play proved to be a defining moment.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ja-Mes Logan — who beat safety Eric Bennett deep — five plays later to push the Rebels’ lead to 27-17. Arkansas went three-and-out on its next series, then Ole Miss struck again when Wallace flipped a quick pass to the Rebels’ top receiver, Donte Moncrief.
Cornerback Tevin Mitchel missed a tackle in the open field, allowing Moncrief to go the distance. The 52-yard touchdown play made it 34-17.
“The coaches gave us a great plan, the offensive line played well and the receivers caught the ball,” Wallace said of the success. “Overall, we had a great game.”
Said Bielema, “We obviously can’t give up long pass plays. Those two pass plays absolutely, positively killed us.”
The big plays were part of another ugly performance for Arkansas’ defense, which has been chewed up by SEC competition this season.
Auburn did it on the ground last week. Ole Miss had success through the air. Wallace completed 26-of-33 passes for a career-high 407 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions while Moncrief caught seven passes for 149 yards and Logan pulled in five catches for 110 yards.
Laquon Treadwell also had a 14-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, a back-breaking play that gave Ole Miss a 20-10 lead.
The Razorbacks surrendered 30 or more points for the sixth straight game Saturday, which set another unenviable school record. Ole Miss finished with 531 yards.
“It’s disappointing because we don’t ever want to give up big plays,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said about the defensive struggles. “It’s like we’re right there. It’s just a couple plays here and there that we’ve just got to make.”
Despite the defensive lapses, Arkansas still had opportunities to make the game interesting in the closing minutes. Allen threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Julian Horton with 4:57 remaining. The defense then came up with a big play when Bennett intercepted Wallace’s pass near the Arkansas goal line.
Bennett returned the ball deep into Ole Miss territory, but the return was nullified because of a penalty for blocking in the back on linebacker Brooks Ellis. Instead, Arkansas took over at its own 7 with 2:05 remaining.
“Next question,” Bielema said when asked about the flag.
Allen tried to lead the Razorbacks on a late scoring drive, but couldn’t crack the end zone. Kicker Zach Hocker missed a 58-yard field goal to end Arkansas’ hopes and send Ole Miss to a bowl game for the second straight season.
“To be bowl eligible each of the first two years, we are ahead of schedule,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I did expect to be bowl eligible this year after last year, but my plan when I first came in was to get to a bowl in year three.”
Arkansas, meanwhile, officially will miss out once again.
The Razorbacks knew they were facing an uphill climb for bowl eligibility entering the game thanks to six straight losses. Arkansas had to defeat Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU to reach the six-win mark and qualify for postseason play.
Arkansas has missed out on the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2004-05. It’s also the first time Bielema has failed to lead a team to a bowl during his tenure as a head coach.
“I’ve never been in this position as a head coach, so it’s very frustrating just because I know what this team needs, and this team needs practices,” said Bielema, whose team has another week off before closing the season against Mississippi State and LSU.
“We’ve got two games to show what kind of pride we have. I think our seniors will lead the way. We had a bunch of seniors playing really good football (Saturday) and hopefully they’ll continue out for the last two weeks.”