Miss. State saves season

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 23, 2001

[11/23/01]Kevin Fant upstaged heralded Eli Manning and the maligned Mississippi State defense was back to its dominating self for a half.

All was well again in Starkville at least for one night.

Before a record crowd of 51,112, the Bulldogs (3-7, 2-6 Southeastern Conference), mired in a disappointing season, scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to reclaim the Golden Egg in the 98th installment of this heated series, 36-28.

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“This win feels great,” said Fant, who threw for 263 yards and a touchdown in just his second career start. “I just wish the season went a little better, but beating Mississippi tonight makes it.”

Fant tossed a second-quarter touchdown to Dicenzo Miller to pull MSU within 21-12 at the half. Manning had a 120 yards and a touchdown pass in the first half, but a ferocious MSU defensive effort in the second half kept the Rebels (6-4, 3-4) off the scoreboard until late in the fourth quarter.

“We put pressure on Eli tonight and anytime you can put pressure on the quarterback, you can get the ball out quickly,” MSU coach Jackie Sherrill said. “That might be the most he’s been hit all year.”

Using a wild, blitzing defense in the second half, the Bulldogs forced Manning into three second-half interceptions. The standout sophomore quarterback had thrown only three interceptions in the first nine games of the season.

“This game ranks as one of my worst,” said Manning, who was 16-of-36 for 213 yards and a pair of TDs. “We’ve been struggling the last couple of weeks. We are not making plays, our receivers are dropping passes and I’m throwing bad passes.”

Manning was intercepted twice by Korey Banks and once by Demetric Wright late in the fourth quarter as the Rebels were making one last push toward a possible tying score.

Trailing 36-21 with 3:15 left in the game, Manning connected on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Ross Barkley, his first of TD catch his career, to make the score 36-28.

The Rebels recovered an onside kick and drove to the MSU 28 before Manning tried to feather a pass to Chris Collins between three Bulldogs’ defenders. Wright and ex-Warren Central standout Josh Morgan both had their hands on the ball before Wright secured the game-saving pick.

That was the play after Jason Armstead dropped a strike on third-and-9.

“We started gambling more in our coverage in the second half and it paid off,” Banks said. “We knew we could hold them those last two minutes. When we threw (Manning) off his rhythm, I knew we were in good shape. We attacked him like no one else has.”

After taking over at the 22, Miller rushed three times for a first down to end the game and start the celebration at Davis-Wade Stadium. Miller and Dontae Walker combined for 200 yards on 42 carries and the Bulldogs had four rushing touchdowns three by Walker. Miller had 121 yards rushing and 61 receiving, while Walker had 79 yards rushing.

“We couldn’t stop their offense,” Ole Miss offensive lineman Terrance Metcalf said. “They took the momentum and capitalized on our mistakes. We couldn’t get in a groove defensively.”

Joe Gunn led the Rebels with 91 yards and a pair of 1-yard touchdown plunges in the first half as the visitors opened a nine-point lead. Charles Stackhouse added a 6-yard TD catch early in the second quarter as the Rebels had nearly 200 yards of offense in the first half.

“I did not think we played very well in the first half,” Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe said. “In the third quarter, things just got worse and that’s my responsibility.

“We got whipped tonight. We showed flashes in all phases of the game, but we have to get better.”

John Michael Marlin started the Bulldogs’ second-half onslaught with a 32-yard field goal with 7:06 left in the third to pull MSU to 21-15.

After a punt, MSU drove 79 yards in eight plays, capped by Walker’s 1-yard TD to give MSU its first lead of the night, 22-21.

Banks’ first interception five minutes into the fourth set up Walker’s third touchdown, a 1-yarder.

“Our whole offense came together tonight,” Miller said. “As a team, we played good enough to win.”

Banks intercepted Manning again on the Rebels’ next possession, setting up some razzle-dazzle by the Bulldogs. Receiver Ray Ray Bivines lined up at quarterback while Fant went wide. Bivines took a direct snap and galloped 7 yards into the end zone with 5:02 left, giving MSU a 36-21 lead.

“I was pleased with our effort, but we have to execute more,” Cutcliffe said. “We fought back after we were down late. If we played better in the third quarter and early in the fourth, I think we would have been in a better position to win … .”

The Bulldogs, who had lost seven of their last eight games, will host No. 9 and undefeated BYU on Dec. 1, while the Rebels, who have lost three in a row, will host Vanderbilt on the same day.

“I’m really proud of our team, considering we haven’t been able to hold on in some close games this year,” Sherrill said. “This game was for all the marbles the next 365 days if you live in this state. Our guys showed a lot of character and pride tonight.”