It’s a great day to be a Rebel

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 7, 2002

[10/6/02]OXFORD Gosh almighty, it just might have been the sweetest chorus of “Hotty Toddy” ever sung at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

The Ole Miss defense recorded a safety, knocked Florida quarterback Rex Grossman around all day, and picked off four passes three of them in the second half to beat the sixth-ranked Gators 17-14.

Rebel safety Matt Grier set up one Ole Miss touchdown with an interception early in the third quarter, and returned another pick 24 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score five minutes later.

“It’s probably the biggest win I’ve ever had,” said Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 154 yards. “It wasn’t the prettiest, but it’s probably the sweetest I’ve ever had.”

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, hundreds of fans from the record-breaking crowd of 61,140 stormed onto the field. A one-second differential between the play clock and the game clock forced officials to clear the field for the final snap, but the celebration was soon on again.

The crowd gathered at midfield and chanted “Hotty Toddy” before making its way to the north end zone to tear down the goalpost.

“I wanted to see the goalpost come down, but it was too crazy for me. I headed to the lockerroom,” Manning said with a laugh.

The much-hyped quarterback duel between Manning and Grossman never materialized, thanks largely to solid defense on both sides.

Florida (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) held the Rebels (4-1, 2-0) to only 191 yards of total offense, and just 37 rushing yards.

Ole Miss, meanwhile, turned up the heat on Grossman in the second half with blitzes on nearly every passing down. The Rebels only sacked Grossman one time, on a fourth-and-13 with just over 6 minutes to play in the game, but hit the Heisman Trophy candidate just about every other time he dropped back.

“We knew we had to hit him some. Our gameplan was to go in and attack him. He’s a tough guy. He took a lot of hits,” Ole Miss defensive lineman Yahrek Johnson said.

The pressure forced Grossman into numerous bad throws, and contributed to the interceptions. He threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes to Carlos Perez to stake the Gators to a 14-2 lead at halftime, but his mistakes led to all 17 Ole Miss points.

In the first half, he dropped a shotgun snap in the end zone and then was called for intentional grounding when he tried to throw it away, resulting in a safety.

Then, just over a minute into the second half, Grossman was picked off by Grier, who returned the ball to the Florida 18-yard line to set up Vashon Pearson’s 4-yard touchdown run three plays later. Manning added a two-point conversion pass to Jason Armstead to cut it to 14-10.

After an exchange of punts, Florida got the ball back its own 17. On the second play of the drive, Grossman threw into triple coverage and was intercepted by Grier again.

This time, Grier finished what he started. He rumbled up the right sideline, vaulting into the end zone from the 2-yard line for the touchdown and the lead.

“I knew they were going to try and come back inside, because they had picked on me earlier … I was playing my zone. I was reading his eyes all the way. He threw the ball straight to me and I took it in for the score,” Grier said. “I saw the end zone, and I’ve been cut short a lot of times, but I said not this time.'”

Grossman took the blame for Florida’s woeful third quarter.

“In the third quarter, I am not quite sure what went wrong,” said Grossman, who was 19-for-44 for 205 yards. “It’s a team sport, but I didn’t do my part to help. It was a different game in the second half. We moved the ball well in the first half, but in the second their defense stepped up.”

Two penalties killed a Gator drive in the fourth quarter including an illegal-man-downfield call that wiped out a big gain on a quarterback throwback play that would have given the Gators a first down at the Ole Miss 12 before the Rebel defense sealed the game.

Still trailing 17-14, Florida got the ball back at its own 16 with 4:47 to play. Grossman completed a pass to Taylor Jacobs for a first down, but was flushed from the pocket two plays later and floated a pass toward the sideline that was intercepted by Travis Blanchard.

After the Rebel offense took over, Pearson kept the chains and the clock moving with a few first downs, and the Ole Miss faithful were soon sending the uprights to Goalpost Valhalla.

“I don’t know where it is,” Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe said of the goalpost. “I bet it’s on its way to The Grove or in The Square by now.”