Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ole Miss: If we would have only...

2003 vs LSU

Ole Miss fans have plenty to be thankful for. They now have a coach that can speak English. The Grove is greatest place in college football. The ladies at Ole Miss are collectively better looking than at any other single school in the SEC.

This means they are also the best looking group of coeds in the nation.

Still, Ole Miss is the only team in the West that has never played in the SEC Championship Game. They also have the misfortune of being the only team in the West to go 7-1 in the SEC and still be left out of Atlanta that year. The “1” on that record was to LSU in 2003, a school many Rebel fans want to beat more than they want to beat they guys from Starkville. That's the one game Ole Miss needs back since the start of the BCS.

Ole Miss started 2003 miserably after having high hopes for Eli's senior season. Losses to Memphis and Texas Tech dropped the Rebels off the radar for pollsters, not to mention the rest of the SEC. Eli's offense could score points, but not as many as the defense was prone to giving up.

Then, the Rebels beat Florida at the Swamp. As with all wins over Florida from 2002 – 2004, there is an obligatory asterisk next to the win because of a man named Zook. Nevertheless, the Rebels changed their luck for the rest of the year on that day. They won a few blowouts, they won a few close ones, and by the middle of November they were 6-0 in the SEC and ranked in the top 15 in the nation. Better yet, they got LSU in Oxford for the right to go to Atlanta.

Ole Miss' defense jumped on LSU early in the game, with a pick six by Travis Johnson. Their defense. This was the same defense that gave up 44 to Memphis, 49 to Texas Tech, and 40 to South Carolina (no, Spurrier wasn't there yet). And just over a minute into the game, they had a 7-0 lead and the loudest crowd ever at Vaught-Hemingway.

The defense somehow kept the Rebels in the game the rest of the way. LSU got a field goal in the 1st quarter, but Ole Miss had a perfect opportunity to add to its lead in the 2nd. Matt Mauck was intercepted again by the Rebs, and Eli started the drive in LSU territory. However, four plays later, Jonathan Nichols missed a 45-yard field goal.

Six plays later, LSU scored on a 9-yard touchdown pass. Finally, just to give up all the momentum before halftime, Ole Miss went three-and-out on its next possession. The Rebels were down by three at half, and knew they had blown chances.

The 3rd quarter typical for a defensive game, and only had two noteworthy plays. Von Hutchins intercepted Mauck for the third time on the day, and Ole Miss was in prime scoring position at the LSU 31. Two plays later, though, Eli gave the ball back. Drives by both teams ended in punts otherwise.

LSU must have been saving something for the end, because they struck on the first play of the 4th quarter. Devery Henderson scored on a 53-yard touchdown pass to give LSU a 17-7 lead. As Eli's offense had been held to under 100 yards up to that point, the game seemed to be getting out of reach.

Instead, the comeback started. Eli converted three separate 3rd downs as he took the Rebels 76 yards in nine plays. The lead was only 17-14. The Ole Miss defense got a three-and-out on the next series, and suddenly the Rebels had possession and eight and a half minutes to score three points. The offense kept moving the ball well, and Jonathan Nichols had a 36-yard field goal attempt to tie the game.

Jonathan Nichols had been reliable every game before this one that year. He was 23 of 24 coming in. He started the year with a 54-yarder to beat Vanderbilt. He went 6-for-6 against Texas Tech and 4-for-4 against Arkansas. Two weeks earlier, he kicked a 42-yarder to tie Auburn in the 4th quarter.

Against LSU, the guy was off. He missed again, pushing the kick wide right, and LSU took over with 4:15 left.

The Rebel defense held, and Eli got the ball back for one last shot. Nothing came of it however, and the game all but ended after three incompletions and Eli tripping on 4th down. Not sure why he wasn't in the shotgun, but also not sure if it would have mattered. Either way, it seemed like a fitting end for a game with so many blown chances. LSU won 17-14.

Also seemingly appropriate: as I write this article, my word processor attempts to autofill “Ole Misfortune” every time I type the phrase “Ole Miss.”

LSU went on to win its second of three SEC Championships this decade, and its first of two BCS titles. Ole Miss went on to, well, hold on to the Grove and those ladies.