FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema all but issued a direct challenge following a 49-30 loss to No. 1 Alabama, a game in which the Razorbacks allowed an average of 10.1 yards per play.
“If I have to get more involved, I have to get more involved,” Bielema said. “I just believe we’ve got to come up and play a lot faster and a lot better in all phases on defense.”
It was a challenge Arkansas (5-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) answered in a 34-30 win over No. 23 Mississippi on Saturday, putting together its best all-around defensive performance of the season while winning its third straight over the Rebels.
The 17th-ranked Razorbacks held an Ole Miss offense that had topped 500 yards in each of its previous three times to 403, a much-more manageable 5.8 yards per play than a week earlier against the Crimson Tide.
They also held All-SEC quarterback Chad Kelly to 18-of-39 passing for 253 yards, thanks in large part to a season-high seven pass breakups. It was the first time the senior has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in a game during his two seasons at Ole Miss.
Arkansas safety Santos Ramirez had one of those breakups, as well as forcing a Kelly fumble during a late-game, fourth-down scramble to secure the win.
“People doubted us after the Alabama loss, but we came back ready to work,” Ramirez said. “Now there’s some big momentum for us going into Auburn.”
With the Razorbacks now focused on this week’s trip to No. 21 Auburn (4-2, 2-1), Bielema somewhat backed off his perceived challenge of a week ago. He made it clear on Monday that he had no additional input on the defensive play-calling than any other week.
“I didn’t have that intention,” Bielema said. “I knew we were a good football team; I knew we had to play better.”
Whatever the intent of Bielema’s challenge, it worked. And it did so with second-leading tackler Dre Greenlaw out 4-6 weeks with a right foot injury. Without the sophomore linebacker, and junior safety De’Andre Coley out for much of the second half against the Rebels following a targeting ejection, junior safety Josh Liddell matched his career high with nine tackles.
Liddell was one of several defensive standouts in the game for the Razorbacks, along with Ramirez, who added a one-handed interception to go with his game-clinching forced fumble.
Now it’s up to Arkansas to keep its defensive momentum going this week at Auburn, this time without its head coach issuing any public ultimatums.
“When you just keep grinding like that and guys are working together as a team, that’s when you get results that come out in your favor,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said.