OXFORD – (AP) Central Arkansas couldn’t have scripted a much better first half during Saturday’s game against Mississippi.
The second half was exactly the opposite.
And the end result was a 49-27 loss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium that left Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque disappointed after a missed opportunity.
“We will learn and grow from it,” Conque said. “We came here to win a football game, but we knew this was going to be a tough environment.”
Bo Wallace threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns in his Football Bowl Subdivision debut as Mississippi rallied to beat Central Arkansas by scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half.
Wallace – a 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior college transfer – was nearly flawless in first-year coach Hugh Freeze’s offense, completing 20 of 24 passes, though he did have one interception. He also rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Despite the comfortable final margin, the game wasn’t easy for the Rebels, who came into the season on a seven-game losing streak. Central Arkansas led 20-14 at halftime before Ole Miss scored five straight touchdowns.
Donte Moncrief led Ole Miss with eight receptions for 104 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown catch from Wallace in the third quarter that pushed the Rebels’ lead to 28-20.
“I had told him the play before, we were coming back to that short post,” Wallace said. “But when I let it go, it was a very tight window and Donte made the play.”
Central Arkansas’ Wynrick Smothers completed 25 of 32 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns. Jackie Hinton led the Bears with 52 yards on 13 carries.
Freeze came to Ole Miss promising a wide-open, up-tempo offense and the Rebels delivered early on a muggy night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Wallace completed his first two passes and then rushed for a 25-yard touchdown on the first drive to give Ole Miss an early 7-0 lead.
But offense wasn’t the problem for the Rebels in the first half. Defense was.
Central Arkansas, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, moved the ball with stunning ease on the ground and in the air early in the game. Smothers – making just his second career start – completed 11 of 13 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and the Bears outgained the Rebels 237-231.
The difficult game brought back memories of one of the biggest disasters in Ole Miss football history – a 49-48 double-overtime loss to Jacksonville State in 2010. That was the first loss to an FCS team in program history.
Thanks largely to Wallace, it’s still the only one.
“I was really proud with the second half – how we responded,” Freeze said. “Our kids didn’t give in to the disappointments of the past.”
Wallace led the Rebels on touchdown drives of 74 and 75 yards in the third quarter.
Wallace and junior Barry Brunetti entered the game in a tight, two-man quarterback race. Brunetti wasn’t bad, completing 5 of 7 passes for 66 yards and a touchdown, but Wallace’s quick throwing release and accuracy looked perfectly suited for Freeze’s methodical passing offense.
“Bo started this game,” Freeze said. “Bo will start the next game. He’s a gamer and he played well. His numbers were really good.”
Ole Miss finished with 565 total yards, including 330 through the air and 235 on the ground. And after moving the ball so well in the first half, Central Arkansas bogged down.
“They just wore us out,” Conque said.
Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche led the team with eight tackles, including three for a loss. Ole Miss had nine tackles for a loss as a team, but those big plays were offset by several blown coverages and missed tackles.
The Rebels won their season opener for the first time since 2009. It was a nearly perfect opener for Freeze, who grew up just 45 miles away in Independence, Miss., and grew up rooting for Ole Miss.
“I so badly wanted to give these fans something to cheer about,” Freeze said. “I wanted to give them something to be proud of.”