Tuesday, November 10, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Razorback fans still relishing memorable overtime in Oxford

Leader sports editor

Saturday’s SEC West showdown in Oxford, Miss., will go down as one of the wildest and most exciting in Arkansas football history.

School records were broken, conference milestones were matched and one of the most memorable endings in college football history took place as Arkansas beat Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime.

It’s the second instant all-time classic the two teams have played in Oxford this century. On Nov. 3, 2001, Arkansas beat Ole Miss 58-56 in seven overtimes.

Ole Miss fans still call that game, “The Longest Day.”

In this year’s game, Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry’s backwards heave on fourth down and 25 in overtime has spawned a series of nicknames as well. Some were the Henry Heave, the backwards Hail Mary and the Hog and Lateral. The best one, though, is the Hotty Totty Toss A Mighty, taken from the famous Hotty Totty Ole Miss cheer.

A debate about the legality of the play raged until as recently as yesterday. The debate started on Saturday night as people cited the rule that a fumble could not be advanced on fourth down by anyone except the person who fumbled.

What that interpretation got wrong was that another rule defines a fumble as a loss of possession by any means other than passing, kicking or successfully handing. Hunter Henry intentionally passed the ball backwards. That is clear from the video. He was 15 yards down field. The ball sailed 30 feet into the air and came down behind the original line of scrimmage. No fumble in the history of football has ever flown that far.

But on Monday, a website called footballscoop.com began challenging the ruling again on Twitter, saying it wasn’t a backward pass because it was not aimed at a specific player.

This interpretation depends on two assumptions that are not in the rule book.

Footballscoop.com tweeted, “once it hits the ground, that’s an intentional fumble on fourth down. Once touched by someone else, ball is dead.”

The mistake footballscoop makes is that there is no rule that says a pass has to be aimed at a specific target, and there’s no rule that says a backwards pass, even an indiscriminate one, becomes a fumble if it hits the ground.

There is one ironic twist to all this that works in Arkansas’ favor, and that is that the fourth-down fumble rule was added to keep teams from doing just what Henry did. But the Hogs’ win is still legal because of the simple technicality that only fumbles are referred to in the fourth down rule. And the words “fumble” and “backwards pass” are clearly defined as two different things elsewhere in the rule book.

One thing not in dispute is that Saturday’s performance by Razorback senior Brandon Allen is one of the best games by a quarterback in Arkansas football history. Allen completed 33 of 45 pass attempts for 442 yards and six touchdowns. The yardage is the second-most in school history, and the six touchdown passes breaks the old record of five set by Tyler Wilson a few years ago.

It’s a bit of solace to Allen, who has spent most of his career as one of the most maligned quarterbacks in Arkansas history. Some of the criticism he has received since being named the starter his sophomore year is deserved, but most of it has been over the top.

Saturday’s game was frustrating to watch for a defensive enthusiast’s, but the offensive onslaught made for an entertaining shootout and quarterback duel between, at least statistically, the top two quarterbacks in the SEC.

Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly leads the league in passing yards (3,224) and touchdowns (23), and has completed 65.7 percent of his passes this season. Allen is second in the SEC in passing yards (2,476) and touchdowns (21), and has completed 64.9 percent of his passes.

Allen also boasts the league’s highest quarterback rating at 164.7, with Kelly having the second-highest rating at 155.0. Allen does a better job of taking care of the football, with only five interceptions this year and just 10 over the last two seasons. Kelly has thrown 12 picks this season alone.

Neither team had a turnover Saturday. Kelly became only the second player in school history with 300-plus yards passing and 100-plus yards rushing in a game. The other guy to do that is Archie Manning.

Even with Kelly’s remarkable performance, Allen was the one who earned the College Football Performance Awards group’s National Player of the Week honor.

It looks as though Arkansas has found its groove offensively. After starting the year a disappointing 1-3, the Razorbacks have won four of their last five games, with their only loss coming to white-hot Alabama, who has the best front seven in college football.

That front seven dominated No. 2 LSU on Saturday, as the Crimson Tide rolled to a 30-16 win over the Tigers.

The Razorbacks’ win Saturday knocked the Rebels off their path toward what could’ve been their first SEC West title, and for the third-consecutive game, the Razorbacks have scored at least 50 points, which is the first time that’s happened in 99 years.

Arkansas is now one win away from bowl eligibility for the second year in a row. With three games remaining and Missouri (4-5, 1-5) left to play in the regular-season finale, the possibility of playing in the postseason is now likely.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Arkansas could win the rest of its regular-season games.

The biggest challenge of the three remaining opponents is next week at LSU (7-1, 4-1). The Tigers were the No. 2-ranked team in the country entering Saturday’s showdown at Alabama.

The Tigers have the best player in the country in Leonard Fournette, who entered Saturday’s game leading the nation in rushing, but was held to 31 yards on 19 carries by the Crimson Tide.

Recent history has shown that despite what the two teams are ranked or where the game is played, the Arkansas-LUS game is unpredictable.

If Arkansas’ offense can play close to the level it did against Ole Miss, it will compete with LSU. The schedule change that moved Arkansas’ annual Friday-after-Thanksgiving game with LSU to this week also helps Arkansas, because the Hogs catch the Tigers the week after Alabama.

SEC teams that play another SEC team the week after playing Alabama have a horrendous winning percentage, somewhere around 10 percent.

Mississippi State (7-3, 3-2) is another game that Arkansas probably won’t be favored in, but it’s another game that should be competitive in Fayetteville. That leaves Missouri at home on Nov. 27, a game Arkansas should win.

If the Razorbacks lose the next two games, the win they should get over Missouri will still put the Hogs in the postseason. Considering how the team started this season, Many Razorback fans will be excited about a bowl game.

Graham Powell contributed information for this column.