Saturday night in “Death Valley.” For an Ole Miss fan, there is no other road game with as much tension. No other place you would rather win.
For a school with such a bad reputation, the fans in Baton Rouge are not nearly as bad as those that tend to travel with their team.
Maybe its because the traveling fans drink the whole way from Baton Rouge to Oxford and when they get off the bus they are ready to fight? Maybe the LSU fans on average are nicer that we like to think they are? (That can’t be correct)
The fans in Baton Rouge didn’t give us too much trouble this game. We did have a few students humor our red and blue attire and sincerely ask if we really thought there was any way Ole Miss could win today. Our affirmative answer gave them a lot of joy and source for laughter.
But they knew as well as I that Ole Miss was playing with no pressure. Ole Miss had won three of the last four matchups (winning 97,98 and 99), so even if we lost the game, I could still claim three wins out of the last five.
LSU was not playing that well prior to this game. They entered at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC. The two SEC losses were to SEC East opponents Tennessee and Florida who were both ranked in the top 10 at the time. They countered with wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State but no one was sure what LSU could do in Nick Sabans second year.
Ole Miss for the first time in 30 years had a Manning leading the team as Sophomore Eli Manning had already had success this year, beating Alabama and Kentucky, with a narrow loss at Auburn 27-21.
LSU’s senior QB Rohan Davey was an imposing 6’-2” 250 pounds but he played a lot bigger than that. In fact, tackling Rohan Davey was similar to wrapping your arms around a tree stump and trying to lay it down on its side. He may not have been the quickest runner but he burned many a defense by passing with multiple defenders drapped on his back or wrapped around both ankles.
Other notable players in this game for Ole Miss was senior running back Joe Gunn, fullback Charles Stackhouse, wide outs Bill Flowers, Jamie Armstrong and tight end Doug Ziegler. On defense for the Rebels, linebacker Lanier Goethie, LP Spence and Eddie Strong, defensive backs Von Hutchins and Synicker Taylor and Defensive tackle Jesse Mitchell.
On the LSU side of the field, running back Domanick Davis, receivers Josh Reed, Michael Clayton and linebacker Bradie James.
The LSU team wasn’t quite as ready as the fans however.
Ole Miss won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball in the second half. LSU started at their on 22 and quickly went 3 and out thanks to a good rush defense and an incompletion.
Eli and Ole Miss started on their own 39 and got a couple of first downs, enough to put LSU down on their own 11 with a punt by Cody Ridgeway.
LSU’s second possession looked promising as Domanick Davis started to find some holes, luckily Matt Grier intercepted a Rohan Davey pass and set up the Rebels at the LSU 36 yard line.
Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe kept the ball low as Charles Stackhouse got a few yards, Eli found tight end and roommate Doug Ziegler down a seam to the two yard line and Joe Gunn punched it in for a score, 7-0 Ole Miss.
Rohan Davey and LSU came back fighting mad with a combination of Domanick Davis and Davey scrambles and reached the Ole Miss four yard line before the Rebels defense stiffened and held the Tigers to a field goal. The first quarter ends with Ole Miss leading 7-3.
During the second quarter the teams traded blows and punts before Rohan Davey got warmed up finding Josh Reed and Michael Clayton for a couple of long passes resulting in a Clayton touchdown, 14-10 Tigers.
The locals started to feel a win and the noise was beginning to reach that unbearable level as 85,000 or more Tigers let us know where we were.
As we would find out so many times in the future, Eli Manning doesn’t get rattled very easily. Coach Cutcliffe and Manning started finding some underneath passing options to Chris Collins and Bill Flowers. Stackhouse had a nice 16 yard run and set up a great fade catch by Bill Flowers to the LSU three yard line. Joe Gunn punched it in and gave Ole Miss the lead again 14-10.
With only 4 minutes left before halftime, LSU played it safe and kept the ball on the ground much to the LSU fans dismay. A quick three and out brought on the LSU punt team. A “why not” all-out punt block try by the Rebels was successful as Rob Robertson got a hand on it and Travis Blanchard returned the ball to the LSU 27.
A prevent defense allowed Eli to pass underneath to running backs Stackhouse and Joe Gunn before finding Omar Rayford for a touchdown with only 10 seconds left in the first half.
Ole Miss took a 21-10 lead into the locker room.
LSU Coach Nick Saban was quoted as saying, “We didn’t play a very good football game. We made a lot of errors and mistakes, and had turnovers that probably led to 21 points.
On this night, Eli’s first season to start, he was already breaking his fathers records. Archie held the record for eight consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and Eli tied the record in this, his eighth game to ever play for Ole Miss.
Even though Ole Miss had a double digit lead, you never feel comfortable with so much time to play. You have to expect LSU to make a run at some point. That push would come quickly in the third quarter.
Ole Miss’ deferred possession resulted in a punt to Domanick Davis who promptly returned it to the house for a 71 yards punt return touchdown. LSU was right back in it trailing Ole Miss 21-17.
The Ole Miss defense did a great job staying with the more talented Tigers, forcing punt after punt in the second half, but LSU’s defense started to lock things down as well.
LSU’s Davey, at the end of the third quarter, found Michael Clayton open again for a 39 yard touchdown pass to again put LSU up 24-21 and erased all the hard work Eli put in during the first half.
I don’t know if Ole Miss wore Rohan Davey down or not but he was not as sharp passing the ball in the fourth quarter. As LSU started to rely on Domanick Davis and the running game, the Rebels were able to stack the line and force punts until Eli found Doug Ziegler on the same soft spot in the zone as earlier in the game but this time Ziegler scores and puts Ole Miss up 28 – 24.
On the next possession, LSU still can’t complete a pass; Rohan hands off to Devery Henderson who fumbles after a hard hit from Lanier Gothie. Ole Miss’ Kenny Jackson recovers the ball near mid-field.
On the next play Joe Gunn has a great 20 yard run and fumbled himself but somehow recovered his own fumble at the LSU 20 yard line. Eli then found Stackhouse in the flat, handed off to Stack for a few, which set up the final nail in the coffin for LSU on this night.
Eli takes the next snap and is forced to roll out to his left away from his right hand, Doug Ziegler is rolling with him at the back of the end zone and has been the hot hand in this game. Eli might have saw Ziegler back there in the traffic, or he might have been throwing the ball away, we may never know exactly why Eli threw the ball.
However it happened the ball was inadvisably thrown into a mass of people at the back of the endzone, into a black hole of 4, maybe 5 guys.
When the dust settled and the players separated Ziegler was holding the ball and a touchdown awarded. Ole Miss extended the lead 35-24.
We asked Doug what happened on THE SEASON TICKET earlier this year and he said, “Absolutely, I caught that ball. I held it all the way through. No doubt. No juggling at all.”
It was a phone interview, so I have no way of knowing how big of a knowing grin he had on his face but there was no evidence to say he didn’t catch the ball either.
The Ole Miss defense came out in the final LSU possession with their ears pinned back and laid Rohan Davey down for a 8 yard sack by LP Spence causing a fumble.
Ole Miss recovered the ball and took a knee for the win in Death Valley, 35-24.
Eli was quoted after the game, “We are a young team, but we’re getting more experienced. And when it comes down to the end, we have guys that are making big plays, big blocks and big catches.”
Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe commented on Eil, “He had composure the whole game. He’s a guy who is focused and poised. When you are prepared you don’t have time to be nervous. You just play your game. He’s a battler and a real tough competitior.”
Nick Saban certainly came up short on this night but it apparently kick-started the Tigers to bigger and better things. LSU didn’t lose another game that year, winning the SEC title over Tennessee and starting the Saban coaching dynasty.