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Egg Bowl win will ease some offseason woes

Ole Miss wide receiver Kerry Johnson, left, kisses the Egg Bowl trophy as McKinley Boykin, right, and other Rebels celebrate a 20-3 win on Saturday. (Meredith SpencerThe Vicksburg Post)

[11/29/04]OXFORD Winning the Battle of the Golden Egg on Saturday went a long way toward salvaging a bad season for Ole Miss, but nagging doubts about the future of the program still linger.

The Rebels, coming off a 10-win season a year ago with their first-ever share of the Southeastern Conference Western Division title, expected a dropoff this season. After all, they were losing quarterback Eli Manning, the top pick in the NFL Draft and the heart of the team. But they didn’t think the drop would be so steep.

Ole Miss stumbled out of the gate, losing its first two games, bounced back to 3-3 and then lost four straight heading into Saturday.

The Rebels dominated the Egg Bowl with a 20-3 win over Mississippi State, but their 4-7 record marked the first losing season for Ole Miss since 1996, ending a seven-year string.

“It’s been a bad year and not what we wanted, but stuff like that happens,” defensive back Travis Johnson said.

Questions abound for the Rebels as they close out their disappointing season. Ole Miss struggled on both offense and defense most of the year, leading to rumors of a coaching change. The Rebels also hope to find a starting quarterback for next fall from three candidates.

Micheal Spurlock took over for Manning at quarterback and sputtered out of the gate. Spurlock completed only 30 of 70 passes on the year and eventually worked his way to third string.

The Rebels then tried Ethan Flatt and didn’t get much more production. The offense averaged only 19 1/2 points per game, which ranked ninth in the SEC and 104th out of 117 teams in Division I-A.

Ultimately the coaching staff settled on a three-man rotation that also included Robert Lane the star of Saturday’s Egg Bowl. Lane came off the bench and led the Rebels to the win with the balance of a steady passing game and his running ability. He finished with 108 passing yards with a touchdown and 97 rushing yards with another score.

Lane, a redshirt freshman, has solidified himself as the top option heading into the offseason, but he still will need to outperform Flatt and Spurlock in the spring.

“He’s a tough competitor,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “He’s got a lot yet to still improve upon, but he loves to compete and I believe he can be a real good playmaker.”

Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator John Latina said Lane has steadily improved his passing and the quarterback battle will likely be between Flatt and Lane. Flatt, a sophomore, threw for 1,530 yards with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions this year. Lane played in only six games, passing for 242 yards with one TD and three picks. He also ran for 368 yards and three scores.

“I think I’ve done well,” Lane said. “I’ve got to get better, that’s what I’m going to do this spring. It’s up to the coaches to decide who’s the best guy for the job.”

While the offense had its share of problems throughout the year, the defense didn’t fare much better.

The Rebels had allowed 27 1/2 points per game and 407 yards per game heading into Saturday both of which ranked second-to-last in the SEC.

But Ole Miss shut down Mississippi State in its most dominant performance of the season. The Rebels allowed only three points the first time all year they held a team under 20. They gave up 220 total yards, and had allowed only 88 after the first three quarters.

“We stopped them from ever getting into a rhythm,” Cutcliffe said. “We handled the line of scrimmage extremely well, that was obvious. We tackled better, we got pressure on the quarterback. All the things that you have to do to be successful, we did better today.”

Although the Rebels played well in their final game, the poor performances throughout the season have led to questions about the job security of both Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach.

“I’m expecting them to be back next year,” Lane said of the coaching staff. “To me, you can’t blame one thing on the coaches this year. It’s been execution on the players’ part. This week we prepared as if they were going to be here forever, and hopefully they will.”

But in the closing remarks of his postgame press conference, Cutcliffe spoke about next season without mentioning his part in it.

“The last game is the one you remember, whether it’s a bowl game or it’s your last regular season game, as in this case,” he said. “The players understand there’s a real commitment it takes to win. Hopefully these guys will take that frame of mind and make that commitment to be the very best that they can possibly be … Hopefully they will take this to heart and make something out of it.”

Southern Miss set for New Orleans Bowl

A victory over Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday was good enough to earn Southern Miss a bowl invitation, the only state school to be invited to a postseason game.

The Golden Eagles are scheduled to play North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Southern Miss (6-4), which will conclude the regular season on Saturday against fourth-ranked California, will be playing in its third straight bowl and seventh in eight years.

“We’re excited to be participating in a bowl game for the seventh time in the past eight seasons,” Southern Miss athletic director Richard Giannini said. “The close proximity to New Orleans gives our fans another chance to come support the football team and we’re looking forward to it.”

This will be the Golden Eagles’ first appearance in the New Orleans Bowl.