This year, the name Eli Manning brought out a little more intensity from the opposing teams as he had a target on his back.
In week three of the season, Ole Miss was coming off a lackluster game in Lubbock Texas, taking a beating to Kliff Kingsbury and Coach Mike Leach 42-28, so it was important for Ole Miss to get a win as they entered SEC play.
This would be the first opening SEC win in nine years if the Rebels could pull it off.
The Rebels started out with a good drive for a field goal by Jonathan Nichols and were driving for another score at the end of the first quarter when the un-thinkable happened. Senior Tight End, Doug Ziegler’s lower leg snapped as he ran a route down near the goal line.
I remember just being scared this was going to be much worse than a broken leg. Memories of Chucky Mullins versus Vanderbilt came to mind. The crowd was so quiet and he was down on the field so long.
As he was carted off the field, he raised his hand and a huge sigh of relief passed through the crowd as we knew he would be ok.
Running back Robert Williams and linebacker Lanier Gothie also both went down with ankle injuries and this game became very workman-like in the first half.
Luckily Vanderbilt had two fumbles inside their own 30 which the Reb’s turned into 10 points or this could have been a very different game.
Eli tried a few long balls late in the first half and either overthrew his receiver or found good coverage.
The Reb’s powered through a sluggish start for both teams and jumped out to a 16-7 halftime lead.
Ole Miss Coach David Cutcliffe at halftime: “It’s good to get drives started but we’ve had to settle for field goals. We’ve got to find a way to get in the endzone. Its been a tough half with injuries. We’ll just close the ranks and keep marching.”
Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson: “We game them some easy points, we are not good enough to do that. We need to quit getting in these holes. We are pretty good when we can hold on to the ball.”
Then the Vandy defense makes a mistake.
Eli found Chris Collins all alone and hit him for a 79-yard touchdown. Jay Cutler punched back with a 49-yard pass to MJ Garrett.
Mike Espy got in on the action with a 78-yard bomb on first down on the next possession and after a defensive stop the Rebels scored again on a long 80 yard drive to make it 38-17 after three quarters.
Jay Cutler had two outstanding running backs this year in Kwane Doster and Norval McKenzie and they all got busy in the fourth quarter.
Both Vandy running backs finished the game with over 100 yards and they helped the Commodores score on the first three possessions of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 38 with 6:51 left in the game.
“It seemed like they had all the momentum,” Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning said. “The crowd got quiet. It seemed dead on the sideline.”
So, Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe turned to his offense, which had been so good all day, to come through again.
“I called them together and told them we needed to put together one more drive,” he said. “It was just a matter of execution.”
The Rebels stepped up and answered as Ronald McClendon took a handoff up the middle and scored for a 23 yard run.
Eli finished 24 for 41 with 386 yards passing, making this his fourth 300 yards game which set a new all time record of three, held by Ole Miss QB’s Archie Manning, Stewart Patridge and Romaro Miller.
Future NFL QB Jay Cutler only completed 11 of 21 passes with 207 yards passing.
“For our team to be at it’s lowest point and for it to come back and do what it takes to win the game was really encouraging,” Cutcliffe said.
“We should have won the game. We had ample opportunity,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “After fighting all the back to tie it at 38, I was sure we were going to pull the upset. Then, even when it was 45-38 we had a shot to tie in the last minute. Mistakes by a young team killed us….but hopefully we’ll learn from this game.”
“In the second half we played well and gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We just didn’t come through in the end,” Cutler said.