For one brief moment last Saturday, Ole Miss and LSU came together
in peace and harmony. It occurred in an oak-shaded spot in The
Grove, Oxford's famed pregame party spot, under a royal-blue
tailgate tent, between mouthfuls of fried chicken and Bloody
Marys. Mike Hillman, LSU's starting quarterback in 1968 and '69,
tapped the shoulder of Archie Manning, the Ole Miss signal-caller
from 1968 to '70 and father of Rebels starter Eli. "I sure hope
your boy wins the Heisman," said Hillman, shaking his old rival's
hand. "But LSU had better win this game."
Every one of the 62,552 fans attending the 92nd meeting of these
cross-border rivals had a reason why his or her team deserved to
win the biggest game between the schools in more than 30 years.
"All of us have grown up in our opponent's backyard," says Doug
Moreau, an All-America end for LSU in 1965. For Hillman, the
reason his side deserved to win had to do with the two losses he
suffered at the hands of Ole Miss as a starter. ("By three points
both times," said Hillman glumly. "Archie was as slippery as a
dadgum snake.") For 94-year-old John Vaught, it had to do with
the eight times LSU had gotten the better of him during his
190-61-12 coaching run in 25 seasons with the Rebels. "LSU has
rained on our parade," the old coach said over the loudspeaker
minutes before kickoff in the stadium that bears his name. "It's
time to put an end to our decades of frustration!"
Unfortunately for Hillman and the rest of the Ole Miss faithful,
their parade got rained on again. Jonathan Nichols, one of the
best placekickers in the country, missed his two field goal
attempts, the second a 36-yarder that would have tied the game
with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then, with just
under two minutes remaining and the Rebels down by three, Eli
Manning took a snap on fourth-and-10, stepped back to throw and
tripped after tangling feet with his center. The magic that had
propelled Ole Miss to a 6-0 conference record in mid-November
disappeared amid a swarm of Tigers linemen.
It was LSU that looked like the team of destiny on Saturday. Its
defense, the stingiest in the nation, stifled the SEC's best
offense with the same blitzes that had earlier shut down Georgia
and Auburn. Junior quarterback Matt Mauck showed fortitude after
throwing three interceptions, hitting Devery Henderson on a
53-yard scoring pass early in the fourth quarter to put the
Tigers up 17-7. LSU now stands third in the BCS rankings, just
2.15 points behind USC. There's a chance that wins over Arkansas
this weekend and in the SEC title game on Dec. 6 could give the
Tigers a big enough strength-of-schedule boost to move them ahead
of USC for a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
An LSU loss to Arkansas would keep Ole Miss's SEC West title
hopes alive. That was small consolation to Archie Manning, whose
youngest son was playing his final college home game. In his
usual seat at the 50-yard line, the Ole Miss legend experienced
the game as a father: clutching the hand of wife Olivia after Eli
tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to pull the Rebels to within
three points with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter, then smiling
bittersweetly after his son's final snap.
Later, Archie gave the dejected Eli a hug, then did what any
die-hard Rebel would do--looked forward to the next rival,
Mississippi State. "Today just wasn't meant to be," said Archie.
"But I know this: We're going to kick State's butt next
week." --Kelley King