Published 12:00 am Friday, December 29, 2000
[12/29/00] NASHVILLE, Tenn. Yes, West Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
He and his elves were dressed as Ole Miss defensive backs Thursday night. And just like the Rebels, they were a little late coming around.
The gift they helped deliver three days after Christmas a 49-38 Mountaineers win in the Music City Bowl sent longtime coach Don Nehlen out with a bowl win after losing eight in a row.
Mountaineers quarterback Brad Lewis, who came into the game with only eight touchdown passes on the season, picked apart the Southeastern Conference’s top-rated secondary with five scores in 35 minutes as West Virginia built a 40-point lead early in the third quarter and held on for an 11-point victory.
Hardly any of the Rebels made any plays in the first three quarters. Still, the performance of some underclassmen late in the game already has fans and coaches looking forward to the future.
Freshman Eli Manning relieved starting quarterback Romaro Miller in the fourth quarter and threw three touchdown passes in a seven-minute span as the Rebels rallied from a 49-9 deficit to make things interesting. His 16-yarder to sophomore Toward Sanford made it an 11-point game with 6:34 left.
An interception by Lance Frazier three minutes later ended all hope of an Ole Miss miracle.
“This game is the passing of the torch,” said Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who pulled Miller because “the game had pretty much gotten out of hand … it was an opportunity for (Manning) to get some playing time.”
Miller, who was 16-of-31 for 221 yards with two interceptions, said, “He’s ready to take over the program and take it to the next level.”
Miller ran for a 7-yard score midway through the third quarter. In the first half, he led the Rebels on drives of 14, 11 and nine plays, but all three ended with Les Binkley field goals (23, 47, 40 yards).
But with Manning at the helm, the “team kind of caught fire,” Cutcliffe said. He connected with junior Jamie Armstrong (23 yards) for his first career TD pass, then found junior Omar Rayford (18 yards) after freshman receiver Chris Collins recovered an onsides kick.
“I have mixed feelings right now,” said Manning, who was 12-of-20 for 167 yards. “We lost the game, but I was pleased with the way I did. I wasn’t really expecting a comeback. I was just trying to get out there and score a couple of points.”
Collins caught a team-high five passes for 65 yards.
But the WVU receivers stole the show. Antonio Brown had six catches for 156 yards and two TDs and Khori Ivy had six catches for 99 yards and two scores.
“We knew coming into this game that Ole Miss played man-to-man and we knew that … they couldn’t match up with our speed,” said Lewis, who finished 15-of-21 for 318 yards after completing his first six passes, three for TDs.
Those last few moments were tense for Nehlen.
“Oh, I was worried the whole time,” he said. “I was going to sleep win lose or draw, but I’ll probably sleep better since we won.”
It looked as if he’d be able to relax after Shawn Terry’s 99-yard kickoff return to start the second half made it 42-9, then a 10-yarder from Lewis to Ivy made it 49-9 with 10 minutes to go in the third.
Lucas was burned for two touchdowns in the first half and one in the second. Brown caught touchdown passes of 35 and 60 yards in the first half, both in front of Lucas. He was beaten on the run, then buried by a block from Ivy, who also caught an 11-yarder early in the second quarter. Lucas bit on a fake and fell going the other way on Ivy’s last TD.
“This was probably the worst game of my DB career,” Lucas said.
“When you’re sick, you try harder, but you get tired quicker. I told the coaches that I wanted to play, though. I started with these guys and I wanted to finish with them.”
A mix-up in the secondary set the stage for the Mountaineers’ first score. Wes Ours, a 290-pound fullback, somehow slipped by Justin Coleman for a 40-yard score one play after a pass interference call on Coleman kept the Mountaineers’ opening drive alive. Rick Sherrod intercepted Miller near the end of the half to set up another Ours touchdown, a punishing 1-yard run, after Ivy’s 25-yard catch in front of Coleman.
Lucas wasn’t the only high-profile Rebel missing in action. Deuce McAllister, also projected as a first-rounder, had only 31 yards on 13 carries and finished with 114 all-purpose yards. He said the bad performance wouldn’t spoil NFL scouts’ opinions of him.
“There’s enough tape of me out there for them to see what type player I am,” McAllister said.
“I think it will make me stronger,” Lucas said. “I’ll use it to try to see how I can get better.”
The Rebels will lose 23 seniors from one of the most productive classes in school history.
“These young men have contributed great numbers to the Ole Miss program 30 wins in four years, four straight bowl games, more records than I can count … ” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very classy young men … the kind of people you’re in the business for. And I certainly appreciate that.”