Little did the younger fans realize, as they sat in Mississippi's
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium last Saturday night, cupping both hands
around their open mouths, cheering on one play and gasping on the
next, that Eli Manning was taking them back in time. This is how
it was in his daddy's day. Except Daddy didn't work overtime.
Eli's father is Archie Manning, who was a scrambler and a gambler
when he was Mississippi's quarterback more than 30 years ago.
Archie led the Rebels to 22 wins and three bowl appearances in
three seasons, but the two-time All-America is remembered most of
all for his performance in a 33-32 loss at Alabama in 1969. That
day he ran for three touchdowns, passed for two more, had an
SEC-record 540 total yards and afterward was seen crying on the
sideline by a national television audience.
Fans watching last Saturday's game in Oxford could also have felt
empathy for Archie's youngest son, a sophomore quarterback who
upheld the family's good name under extraordinary circumstances.
Eli threw for 312 yards and six touchdowns, rallying his team to
five second-half and overtime comebacks before Mississippi
finally lost to Arkansas 58-56 in a game that lasted four hours
and 14 minutes and went seven overtimes--the most in college
history. The Razorbacks won thanks in large part to 6'5" option
quarterback Matt Jones, a freshman who replaced starter Zak Clark
at the helm of the team's option attack late in the second half.
From the fourth quarter on, Jones ran for 99 yards and threw for
61 more in leading Arkansas to 48 points.
As the game pitched back and forth, Eli handled the pressure
differently than his father or older brother, former Tennessee
quarterback Peyton, might have. He didn't go for Archie's
razzle-dazzle improvisations or exhibit Peyton's high-strung
persona. Instead the 6'4", 205-pound Eli lingered in the pocket
as if he were in an elevator waiting calmly for the doors to
open. In personality Eli has less in common with Archie or Peyton
than with his coolheaded mom, Olivia, who was the homecoming
queen at Ole Miss when she fell in love with the All-America
quarterback. Rather than shed tears after the defeat, Eli let go
of his frustrations merely by tearing off the lucky rubber band
he had been wearing around his throwing wrist during the Rebels'
five-game winning streak, their longest in nine years.
The loss threatens to drop surprising Mississippi (6-2, 3-2 in
the conference) out of the running in the SEC West, in which
front-runner Auburn (6-2, 4-1) holds the tiebreaker edge over Ole
Miss because of the Tigers' 27-21 victory over the Rebels on
Sept. 8. Still, Ole Miss remains in contention for a fifth
straight bowl, no small feat for a young team that was widely
predicted to finish last in the division. The main reason for the
turnabout is the spectacular performance of the 20-year-old
Manning, who in his first season as a starter has thrown for a
school-record 23 touchdowns (five more than the old single-season
mark shared by his father) and only two interceptions. Against
the Razorbacks, Eli nearly pulled off a game-winning
fourth-quarter comeback for the third time this season.
On the whole, things have gone better in Oxford for Eli than
Archie could have imagined. Given the meteoric rise of Peyton,
who starred at Tennessee from 1994 through '97 and was taken as
the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, Archie
worried that Mississippians would expect nothing less from Eli.
"I was scared to death about him coming here," Archie says.
How could anyone hope to fulfill the Manning legacy at Ole Miss?
The place is full of booby traps. The speed-limit signs on campus
read 18 MPH, which by no coincidence is Archie's retired uniform
number. Eli frequently does interviews in the athletic
department's Manning Room, filled with memorabilia from Archie's
heyday. Local television reporters ask Eli to pose in front of a
portrait of his father, while he answers their questions.
"They even stand alike," says university chancellor Bob Khayat, a
former Rebel who was a kicker for the Washington Redskins from
1960 through '63. "Eli's legs are slightly bowed, like his
father's, and when I see him standing on the sideline with his
hand on his hip, he looks just like Archie."
The comparisons with his father haven't bothered Eli (though he
did decline an offer to bring Archie's number out of retirement,
preferring to stick with the number 10). The legacy of Peyton was
Eli's main concern while he was starring at Isadore Newman High
in New Orleans and was choosing a college. Less than a year
later, after Peyton had left Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, the
Volunteers' offensive coordinator and Peyton's close friend,
hoped to recruit Eli to Knoxville. However, everything Peyton had
accomplished there was fresh in Eli's memory, and he didn't want
that burden. "It would have been too much to deal with," he says,
in explaining why in November 1998 he told Cutcliffe that he
would not be attending Tennessee. (Eli was planning to sign with
Texas or Virginia.)
Two weeks later Eli had another conversation with Cutcliffe, who
called to say that he had been hired as the Ole Miss coach,
replacing Tommy Tuberville, who had left for Auburn. To those who
smell a conspiracy, Khayat says that he'd had his eye on
Cutcliffe for years and that his hiring had nothing to do with
any hopes of luring Eli to Oxford. All the same, Eli committed to
Ole Miss within a fortnight. The visits he had made with his
parents over the years made the campus feel like home, and he
felt assured that Cutcliffe's pro-style offense would bring out
the best in him.
The only uncertainty for Eli was how he would be received. "I
worried coming in for my freshman year what my teammates would
think of me," he says. "I was a little scared they would think I
was here just because I had a brother who could play, that I was
cocky." It didn't help that the old Three Dog Night hit Eli's
Coming was played ad nauseam on campus before he took a snap.
As his new teammates would learn, Eli does not act as though the
world owes him anything. On the contrary: His surname connotes
hard work and high standards on and off the field, which he tries
to live up to. Eli is a business major and an honor student with
a 3.6 GPA. He makes time to study his opponents on film--apart
from team meetings--for an hour or two daily.
Eli threw only 33 passes last season as a backup to senior Romaro
Miller. Not until last December, when Eli was sent into the Music
City Bowl at the beginning of the fourth quarter with Ole Miss
trailing West Virginia 49-16, did the new Manning era get its
start. Eli completed 12 of 20 passes for 167 yards and three
touchdowns as his teammates rallied around him in scoring 22
unanswered points in a 49-38 defeat.
In unofficial summer workouts he remained hesitant to raise his
voice, but he found other ways to assert himself. "He would try
to burn me," says senior cornerback Syniker Taylor. "If he
completed the last ball on me, I'd make him stay out there. If I
stopped the last ball, he'd make me stay out there. Some days we
would keep each other out there an extra 20 minutes, until the
receiver would mess it up, and then we could all go in."
Eli cannot throw as far as Peyton--yet--and the deep ball is not a
big weapon in the Ole Miss offense, but Eli's quick delivery and
uncanny accuracy (he has completed 69.9% of his passes this
season), even when rolling to his left, have tormented opponents.
In a 27-24 comeback victory over Alabama on Oct. 13, Eli absorbed
a monstrous hit that left him woozy but got up and completed a
pass on the next play. "He's a clone [of his brother]," Arkansas
defensive coordinator John Thompson said last week, after
watching video of Eli. "The way he sets his feet and turns his
shoulders, it looks like Peyton. It's fun to watch if you're not
trying to defend against him."
In Saturday's game, Thompson's ever-shifting defenses stifled Eli
for the first three quarters. In typical Manning fashion, he
figured them out by the fourth. Unfortunately for the Rebels, the
Razorbacks came alive in the same quarter, once Jones was under
center. "I got sick of seeing him out there," said Manning, who
responded with a number of clutch plays of his own, including a
finely threaded fourth-down pass to Jason Armstead in the back of
the end zone in the first overtime, which tied the game at 24.
The offenses feasted on the exhausted defenses. It didn't help
that the order of possession was reversed with each overtime,
forcing defenders to return to the field for back-to-back series.
Starting in the third overtime, the teams were required to
attempt two-point conversions after every touchdown. Eventually
the conversion options in the playbooks were exhausted. "I kept
wondering, What's going to be our two-point play?" said Arkansas
coach Houston Nutt, whose team didn't convert a two-pointer until
it had to, in the fifth overtime. (Jones connected with Jason
Peters for a conversion to tie the game at 50.)
"We came off the sideline after scoring our two-point conversion,
and I'm thinking, That could be it," said Ole Miss center Ben
Claxton. "Then they go out and get a two-point conversion of
their own. The whole game was like that--you're high up here, and
then they score, and you're down there again. It was almost as
taxing emotionally as it was physically."
As the teams exchanged punches at a Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed
pace--the game produced 988 yards of total offense and an
NCAA-record 198 plays, and three Razorbacks rushed for at least
100 yards--this much became clear: Neither team deserved to lose.
"It went through my mind during one of the overtimes, I can't
remember which one, that they ought to blow the whistle and say,
'Boys, go to the house,'" Cutcliffe said. The game finally ended
when the Rebels failed on a conversion attempt: Eli's roommate,
tight end Doug Ziegler, caught a pass on a crossing route over
the middle but was stopped a yard short of the end zone. "It's
the strangest game I ever played in," Eli said.
How many times did people walk away from his father's games
saying the same thing? There's the remainder of this season and
possibly two more to be played out in this Manning sequel, which
could yet turn out to be better than the original.
it looks like Peyton."