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Funny thing about 2003 -- as much as LSU was rolling as November arrived, they still weren't in first place in the SEC West. Ole Miss was. The Eli Manning-led Rebels lost a pair of shootout non-conference games to Memphis and Texas Tech and then six-game winning streak, upsetting Florida and Auburn on the road, while scoring a home win over a ranked Arkansas squad. They had worked their way into the top 20, and suddenly had a legit shot at winning the division with No. 3 LSU coming to town.
Fun fact that people might not realize: Ole Miss had a bye-week while LSU was playing Alabama, and as a result there was quite a lot of Rebel beat media on hand for the LSU-Bama postgame. Asking Nick Saban about Ole Miss during the Alabama post-game did not go over well.
And the mood continued through the week, with a very prickly Monday press lunch and an even worse Wednesday conference. Remember when I mentioned that we in the local media learned to use that Wednesday presser as something of a team thermometer? Your intrepid student reporter expected to see a very tight group of Tigers on Saturday in Oxford. Saban was crapping diamonds.
- On location for this one. My oldest sister, who lives in Memphis, had recently given birth to a very beautiful baby girl, which gave us plenty of reason to visit. So my family and I traveled up there and drove down to Oxford, where I would meet up with Tiger Rag Editor Matt DeVille to cover the game in official-like capacity.
- Bonus video: CBS had a very cool intro for the first nationally relevant LSU-Ole Miss game in 30-some years.
- Tailgating story from this'n -- while tailgating in one of the large blacktop parking lots near Hwy 6 on the edge of Ole Miss' campus, an episode of When Animals Attack broke out. Another tailgater stumbled into a nearby wooded area, probably to relieve himself, and disturbed a young deer, who immediately sprinted out of the woods and into the lot, crashing through a couple of tailgates (thankfully, not ours) before crashing head-first into a chain-link fence and getting its antlers tangled. Resisting the obviously foolish urge to try and help the animal, we really weren't sure what to do. Luckily, it freed itself and escaped. Still, not exactly something you see at a lot of other college campuses.
- Oxford anecdote #2: Ole Miss' sports information department was very unprepared for the national media crush at this game. The press box was jammed packed, and not just with media -- we spotted a couple of boosters in regular seats. Matt and I wound up relegated to the photo deck, with no seats.
- I make fun of Ole Miss fans a lot on this blog, but I have to say this much. This was one of the better big-game atmospheres I have ever been a part of away from Tiger Stadium. They packed in to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and were as loud as any Ole Miss crowd I've ever heard.
- A Cody Ridgeway punt pins LSU inside the 10, and the tightness doesn't take long to show up for LSU. A simple play-action bootleg play and Matt Mauck makes a foolish panic throw right to Ole Miss' Travis Johnson for the easiest touchdown he's probably ever scored. Michael Clayton was double-covered, and Mauck didn't even make that great of a throw to boot. At the time, Matt and I felt like LSU would be able to out-talent this Ole Miss club, but this game was playing out just like the textbook LSU road upset program of the Saban era.
- But LSU's offensive line settled in on the next drive, scratching together a 15-play drive for three points on the next series.
- It's worth noting that when the first quarter of this game ended, LSU had outgained Ole Miss 62-32, and was losing.
- Up-and-down game for the LSU offense in the second quarter, but once Justin Vincent busted a 44-yard gain, it looked like things were starting to click.
- A nifty playcall by Jimbo Fisher, a play-action tunnel screen. Stephen Peterman and Rodney Reed get out on front and Michael Clayton gets into the endzone.
- LSU got into the half with a lead and Manning was really struggling -- the job that Corey Webster and Travis Daniels was so underrated in 2003, and this was one of their best games as a tandem. They combined for nine pass break-ups and one interception, holding Manning to 16-36 passing for 200 yards -- easily his worst game of the season.
- The defenses began to stalemate in the third quarter. Mauck threw his third interception of the game, but Ole Miss couldn't get much going and Manning was under constant pressure from LSU's front. Justin Vincent was red hot, but touched the ball just five times in the quarter.
- And then the quarter hits four and things heat up with Mauck finding Devery Henderson for a 53-yard touchdown. I'm going to put my old boss on blast a little here: when LSU scored here, his exact words were "and now the route is on." Ole Miss had so little luck moving the ball in this game, you had to think LSU would put the hammer down, crank up Vincent and the running game and put things away.
- Credit Eli Manning though. He kept picking himself up off the fieldturf through a 9-play, 76-yard scoring drive, finding Brandon Jacobs on a blitz read out of the backfield. The 03 defense's Achilles ' heel. Covering running backs out of the backfield.
- LSU, meanwhile, would not gain another first down in the fourth, blowing their shot at icing this one.
- Manning heats up again, takes his team right down the field, only to have Jonathan Nichols, who had been one of the better kickers in the country that season, completely shank a 36-yarder. If you think all of Nick Saban's success has come from preparation without much fortune, in 2003 he had two very very good kickers miss easy kicks in tight games (Georgia & Ole Miss). LSU had a pretty shaky tandem of Ryan Gaudet and Chris Jackson, but neither one was ever put in too much of a pressure situation.
- Inside of the final two minutes, and by this time I'm on the sidelines near the endzone, preparing for postgame. We can just barely see the Ole Miss offense with the ball and their best shot at winning this one. The LSU secondary took care of three straight Manning passes. Fourth in the game. Eli's Heisman moment. And right down on his ass he goes. Chad Lavalais explodes off the line, shoves center Doug Buckles back until he steps on his quarterback's foot. Ball game. Lavalais, furthering his All-American resume on the day with 5 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass break-up.
- LSU now had the leg up in the West, but nothing was clinched yet. The season wrap against a pretty solid Arkansas team was still looming.