Sports

They Did It, Somehow

An unforgettable drive in Starkville, and a march back from the football abyss.

by Paul Gerald

In three years, Tommy Tuberville has rebuilt the Ole Miss football program more quickly than anyone had thought possible. On Saturday, the Rebels won a game that had seemed lost just moments before. The Rebs made history in Starkville, and probation and its surrounding turmoil are now in the past. The future in Oxford looks as bright as a Mississippi summer afternoon.
A nine-play drive; a three-year comeback. They were down by seven, 64 yards from the goal line, with only one time-out. They had seen two popular coaches leave unhappily, they had practically no scholarships to offer, and their in-state rivals were getting stronger. A few months ago, the Rebels were picked to finish

The Miracle Worker? Ole Miss Coach Tommy Tuberville

last in the conference and opened with an overtime win against Central Florida; now their fans expect a bowl bid this year and a better one in ’98.
For Mississippi State, it’s the other side of the coin. Two weeks ago State fans were thinking SEC championship. But they lost badly to a lame Arkansas team. With a win over the hated Rebels, they might at least have salvaged a bowl invitation. But when Cory Peterson caught a Stewart Patridge pass just inside the Bulldog end zone with 25 seconds to go, they were left only with questions: How did we lose this game? What happened to our season? When are Jackie Sherrill and Joe Lee Dunn going to deliver?
State looks like Arkansas did in 1995 when it won the SEC West: nice season with a poor finish. They will likely be looking for another coach in a couple of years. In Oxford, it’s all about what a difference a coach and a drive make. Tuberville has simply worked magic with the Ole Miss football program. He makes games exciting by faking kicks and constantly attempting fourth-down conversions, including one at midfield on the Rebels’ opening drive Saturday. Two plays after they converted the fourth down, the Rebels went up, 7-0.
Tuberville’s got style, too. At halftime Saturday, a radio sideline reporter asked about State abandoning the blitz after the Rebels scored quickly on that first drive. “Yeah, they made that adjustment,” Tuberville responded. “Turns out they were smarter than we thought they were.”
People have certainly noticed Tuberville. No sooner did Arkansas and Texas fire their coaches than Tuberville’s name surfaced as a possible replacement. When was the last time a football power like Texas wanted an Ole Miss football coach?
And yet, if the Rebels had failed in that last drive Saturday, the storyline would be that they just didn’t have the manpower to hang with State, that they especially need big linemen, that they grow weary at the end of games, that their losses to Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, and the worst Alabama team in years show they’re still the same old Rebels.
All of that is more or less true. Ole Miss is about five plays from being 4-7. Change two last-second, goal-line plays this year and they would have lost to Central Florida and MSU and finished 5-6.
But they’re 7-4 and appear on the verge of becoming a force in the SEC West. There are only 21 seniors on this team. Out of 111 players on the roster, 81 are freshmen or sophomores. In these heady days, with the memory of Starkville fresh in their heads, Rebels fans are looking at next season and thinking things like, “We’ve got most everybody back, we’re expanding the stadium, we trade Tennessee on the schedule for South Carolina, we’ve got LSU and Auburn at home, Alabama and Arkansas are down ....”
All this, basically because of one drive.
But what a drive. After State missed a 52-yard field goal, which, along with their switch to the “prevent” defense for the last drive, is a coaching decision Bulldog fans will long lament, the Rebels took over on their own 36. Grant Heard dropped a 35-yard pass on the first play, then tight end Rufus French got four, and John Avery, who it says here is the best runner in Ole Miss history, got seven on third and six. An intentional grounding call created second and 23, but Andre Rone caught a pass for 30. After an incompletion, the last 36 yards were covered in three consecutive passes. Rone caught the touchdown, the conversion pass got a foot more than it needed, and from either side of the stadium it was unbelievable. Seventy-nine yards, including the penalty, in nine plays and 1:47. The only time-out was to set up the two-point conversion.
If the current promise of Ole Miss football is met – if they get a bowl invitation, if Tuberville stays, if they recruit well and stay out of trouble – it will largely have been made possible by those 10 plays.
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