1997 is a year in which I have a hard time remembering a lot of details. My early college years, like a lot of yours, did not have much structure except for Saturday and college football. I literally used college football games to remember where I was in time.
I know my child was born in 2001, because Eli beat LSU that year. I remember deciding to attend Ole Miss in 1990 when I saw “The Hit.” Chris Mitchell and Chaucey Godwin combined to demolish any hopes Arkansas had of winning that day. All the big events in my life have some relevence to college football, as should yours.
But in 1997, I don’t think I realized how dire the scholarship situation was at Ole Miss. The team had been levied severe NCAA sanctions and was dealing with a lenghty probation. This year Ole Miss only had 70 scholarships but they were eligible for a bowl, if they were lucky enough to win 6 games. That was far from automatic.
Head Coach Tommy Tuberville, had done a fine job of recruiting for needs but the team was young. The two deep included 14 freshman or red-shirt freshman and 11 sophmores.On the schedule, the Rebels had only one “easy” out of conference game in Southern Methodist. They opened with a Daunte Culpepper lead Central Florida team that took them to overtime (A Rebel 24-23 win, where Culpepper actually fell down to end the game or he would have scored and won).
Ole Miss had to travel to Auburn that year, play Peyton Manning in Memphis and this game in Baton Rouge made three top 10 road games.
It was October 18th, not quite cold for an 11am game but as far as game day in Baton Rouge goes, it set up very well for Ole Miss. LSU the week before had beaten the number 1 ranked Florida Gators in Baton Rouge in a very emotional night game in Death Valley. Ole Miss had an off week to review film and look for weaknesses.
There were not many. LSU QB Herb Tyler was fairly one dimensional but was a sensational option quarterback and could score from anywhere on the field. Then there was Kevin Faulk at tailback who was an even better version of John Avery (arguably).
In 1959, LSU beat #2 ranked Ole Miss on Halloween night (thanks Billy Cannon) but then they immedietly lost to Tennessee the next week.
1969, LSU beat a top 10 rated Auburn, then Archie and the Rebels beat LSU in Jackson.
1982, LSU beat a top ranked Bobby Bowden then lost to Tulane the next week, such an insult for LSU fans.
Tim Brando was seriously concerned on the Jefferson-Pilot broadcast. The entire pre-game show was dedicated to the question of, “Would LSU have a let-down?”
The Tiger fans were not concerned. They were still obnoxious, of course. But they weren’t going to take Ole Miss seriously. Ole Miss was the worst team in the league (only because of the really tough schedule). The barbs thrown at the college kids dressed in red and blue were not as sharp as you would have expected.
LSU’s first possession proved the Tiger offense was asleep as a called incomplete pass near the endzone should have resulted in an Ole Miss fumble recovery for a touchdown. (You have to expect a couple of those calls in Baton Rouge).
Rebel QB Stewart Patridge and John Avery immedietly responded, battling through a couple more questionable calls on their first possession and punched it in the end zone on a Avery scamper to really set the tone of the day.
Ole Miss Head Coach Tommy Tuberbille and QB coach Noel Mazzone decided they could exploit the Tiger linebackers pass defense and wore them out most of the first half with crossing routes. Cory Peterson had 47 yards, Rufus French had 42 yards and looked so dominate at tight end in 1997. Wideout Andre Rone had 89 yards and LSU had no counterpart in the passing game. LSU had a wicked one-two running punch, don’t get me wrong, but without a real threat to complete a pass and stretch the defense, Ole Miss’ really tightened up in the second half and scored 22 unanswered points to win 36-21.
The week before, the Florida Gators could not handle the option offense from Herb Tyler, but with two weeks to work on it, the Rebels only got burned once. Sophomore safety Ronnie Heard, playing his first start was guilty of over pursuing a Tyler run in the 1st quarter but he locked down the Tigers after that making many big plays and stops to set up long 3rd downs.
Freshman Deuce McAllister only had 18 rushing yards in this game, used exclusively on short yardage and most notably three times on 4th down and short. Each time he showed his signature move of extending the ball out over the yard marker or plane of the touchdown, much to the dismay of those in attendance. Everyone assumed he would fumble it each time but he never did.
The second half was a rather efficient and total beat down of LSU. Kevin Faulk gained 172 yards, Herb Tyler finished with 101 yards rushing, but two guys would not get it done. The Ole Miss defense entered this game as the #11th best rush defense in the league, facing the best running team in the SEC, but they did their job forcing Herb Tyler to pass which he was not going to do very well.
It was over when Stewart Patridge found Grant Heard on a double move down the sideline for a touchdown. On the next possession late in the third quarter, Tim Strickland picked off a Herb Tyler pass to allow Ole Miss to control the game and they eventually salt it away.
Everyone was shocked at the final score of 36-21. It was even worse than 15 points, at the time it seemed like 55. LSU fans or players didn’t give Ole Miss credit but the Rebels were within a touchdown of beating Auburn two weeks before this game. They were within striking distance of beating Peyton Manning before a late touchdown. This was a good, blue-collar Ole Miss defense.
Post game quotes from Tommy Tuberville:”Before you ask me, yes, it is the biggest win since I’ve been here, and the biggest win for our football program in a long time. We don’t have a lot of great athletes on our team, we’ve just got a lot of character and pride, and they play awfully well, they play hard together.”
“We really struggled,” admitted Tigers coach Gerry DiNardo. “Give credit to Ole Miss, they played better, they coached better. It looked like we really took a step backward, cutting guys loose on defense.”
Rebel running back John Avery: “We said we’re not going to come back with the same story that we should have beat Tennessee, we should have beat Auburn, we should have beat LSU. At the beginning of the season, everybody kept coming at us like, ‘You guys are ranked last every year and you’re not getting the respect you need.’ I told them that’s OK, we’ll be back.”
It was Patridge’s second 300-yard game of the season. He threw for 303 yards in Ole Miss’ 24-23 overtime victory over Central Florida. “The biggest thing is to respect yourself, and I think we know we’ve got a good team,” said Patridge, who became just the fourth Ole Miss quarterback to record five 200-yard games in a season. “I think we opened some eyes with a win today over a team such as LSU, so it’s big for us.”
This game was the beginning of quite a run by the Rebels as they won the next two games over LSU (37-31 in 1998 and 42-23 in 1999). This 1997 matchup was the beginning of the end for LSU coach Gerry Dinardo, only a week removed from the first win over a number one team in LSU’s history; quite a swing in momentum.
For LSU, the Florida celebration was short lived, but in a way the Ole Miss wins eventually forced Dinardo out and they went and found a “real” football coach when Nick Saban came to town in 2000.
But that is another story.