As the Razorbacks prepare to head to Oxford this weekend for a football game at Ole Miss, it is hard for me not to think back about at trip that came now more than a decade ago. It was a quieter simpler time when college football games were generally settled in four quarters or an occasional overtime.
But on an early November night, just a stone’s throw from the famed Grove, Arkansas and Ole Miss played a game for the ages. What started as a fairly pedestrian matchup between SEC Western Division rivals, turned into an epic late-night television event featuring an overtime duel between a laid-back, seeming unflappable Razorback freshman quarterback, Matt Jones, and a true legacy Rebels’ signal caller, Eli Manning, who would lift the Lombardi Trophy as a Super Bowl champion in years to come.
But as the action got underway at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium that night, it was shaping up as a rather undistinguishable game. In fact, Jones, who would be one of the eventual heroes of the game, didn’t start for the Razorbacks or even play significantly until the fourth quarter.
In the first half, neither team could muster much offense as the score was tied at 7-7 at the break. Ole Miss opened the second half by marching to the Razorback two yard line. The Rebels connected on a 56-yard throw and catch from quarterback Manning to tight end Doug Zeigler to move into Arkansas territory. But the Razorback defense held and Ole Miss missed a 20-yard field goal attempt to turn the ball over to the Hogs.
After an exchange of punts, the Razorbacks took over at the Ole Miss 47 yard line. The Hogs moved 14 yards on six plays and capped the drive with a 45-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead. Ole Miss returned the ensuing kickoff 53 yards to the Arkansas 40 yard line. Manning moved Ole Miss to the Arkansas six yard line with a pair of completions. Again the Razorbacks defense kept the Rebels out of the end zone as the Rebels connected on a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10.
Each team found the end zone in the final quarter of regulation. Arkansas took the lead 17-10 with 10:18 left in the game on a two-yard run by Mark Pierce. Ole Miss tied the game with 4:50 left in regulation on a three-yard scoring strike from Manning to Jamie Armstrong to set up the dramatic overtime-finish.
Arkansas received the ball to open the first overtime period and running back Cedric Cobbs scored from 16 yards out to ignite the overtime thriller. Ole Miss responded with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Jason Armstead. Both teams converted the PAT and it was on to the second overtime.
The eventual longest game in NCAA history looked to be over, prematurely as it turns out, in the second overtime period. On third and goal from the Arkansas three-yard line, Manning fumbled the ball and Arkansas’ Curt Davis recovered. Now the Razorbacks would only need a field goal to win. But after Arkansas employed a steady diet of the run to get it to the 18 yard line, a missed 35-yard field goal sent the teams to the third extra frame.
From there it turned into an offensive back and forth, with both teams scoring touchdowns in the fourth, fifth and sixth overtimes. After Ole Miss scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion in overtime number six, the pressure was on Jones and the Razorbacks. But a Mark Pierce touchdown run followed by a pass from Jones to converted tackle Jason Peters tied the score once again and sent it to the seventh overtime.
In the seventh overtime, the shoe was on the other foot as Arkansas put the pressure on the home team. After Pierce scored on a two-yard touchdown run, Jones then found DeCori Birmingham for a two-point pass conversion. Manning calmly guided the Rebels down the field and found the end zone setting up the key play.
Manning dropped back and completed the pass, but it was Arkansas’ Jermaine Petty who stopped Ole Miss tight end Doug Ziegler two yards short of the end zone stifling the two-point conversion that would have tied the game giving the Razorbacks a thrilling 58-56 victory over the Rebels.
In a game that featured an NCAA record seven overtime periods and a combined 114 points and 988 yards of total offense, the margin of victory came down to two yards. The Razorbacks rushed the field witha blended emotion of euphoria and relief. The longest game in college football history was over.
No one anticipated a game like this, how could they? It had never happened. So by the time the team had showered and fulfilledits media obligations, the post-game meal had gone cold. After all, it was delivered midway through the fourth quarter.
So the Razorbacks did what many of us would do when we are out late on the weekend and have the munchies – they took the bus through the drive thru at a fast food restaurant on the way back to the airport. Fortunately, team officials had called ahead and soon there were hot cheeseburgers for everyone.
As the players, coaches and staff arrived home in Fayetteville at nearly 6 a.m., the impact of the game was just starting to settle in. In fact, when I walked into my home a little after 7:30 a.m., I flipped on the TV to see that they were saying. A replay of the game was on. And although, I desperately needed some sleep, I couldn’t help it. I watched the final four overtimes before I went off to bed.
Wow! What a game! I bet we never see that again, I thought. That was true – at least until two years later at Kentucky.
Razorback Road is a weekly column published on Thursdays by Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Kevin Trainor. Trainor is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and has worked for Razorback Athletics for more than 20 years.