"It's a special stadium," said Eli. "The fans are great and they're loud. It was great to have the opportunity to play here and it was great to win here also."
The win put Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) propelled Ole Miss into the thick of the SEC West Division following Auburn's loss at Arkansas earlier in the day. Auburn (6-2, 4-2) owns the tiebreaker edge over the Rebels with its 27-21 win on Sept. 8.
The loss for LSU (4-3, 2-3) virtually knocks them out of the divisional race.
With Manning burning up the Tiger defense, especially in the red zone, a chill settled over LSU's offense as the game progressed that matched the cold, windy conditions in Baton Rouge. Despite overcoming two separate Ole Miss leads, the Tigers could not achieve any consistency with the ball and missed chances to build upon the edge it had entering the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Rohan Davey started 0-for-3 in the first quarter, 1-of-6 in the third quarter and finished with just 9 completions on 23 attempts for 183 yards and one touchdown with one interception. After the game, the senior from Miami took responsibility for his poor performance.
"They didn't do anything to confuse me; I just played an awful game," said Davey. "Our offense and team were in situations we shouldn't have been in. The first three or four times we got the ball, we went three-and-out right off the bat. We can't have that."
Davey's confidence was evidently shaken to the point where LSU's coaches were not comfortable with having him take any chances. Specifically, they wanted to run the clock out before halftime, rather give their quarterback a chance to correct or worsen is problems.
After Ole Miss went ahead 14-10 in the second quarter, LSU took over at its 31 with just over two minutes to go in the period. Instead of going into a two-minute offense, the Tigers called three straight running plays and were forced to punt when they couldn't post a first down.
Just as LSU punter Donnie Jones was getting the ball off his foot, Rob Robertson closed in and blocked it. Travis Blanchard recovered at the LSU 27, and Manning led a 4-play, 27-second drive that culminated with his first touchdown pass – an 8-yarder over the middle to Omar Rayford.
"If we'd have made a first down running the ball," Saban explained, "or throwing a short boot or play-action pass… we might have gone two-minute in that situation. But there's no excuse for getting a punt blocked. If we get the punt off, they've got 30 seconds and we go in 14-10, and there's not a problem."
Tiger fans let Saban know there was a problem, booing as him as he made his exit into the locker room at halftime.
"If we deserved to get booed for that, we deserve to get booed," said Saban. "I'm assuming everybody was booing me, and I hope that was the case.
"But it was my decision and I don't think it was a bad decision relative to the field position and how we were playing on offense at the time."
With the momentum squarely in the corner of Ole Miss to begin the second half, the other half of the LSU punting game wrested it away. After the Rebels' opening drive faltered, Cody Ridgeway punted away to Domanick Davis, who hauled in the ball at the LSU 29. Taking a diagonal path across the field, Davis found the seam created by his blockers and faked away from Ridgeway for a 71-yard touchdown return. It cut the Rebels' lead to 4 points.
It was the first LSU punt return for a score since Larry Foster had 50-yarder against Idaho in 1998 and the longest since Kevin Faulk's 78-yard effort against Houston in 1996.
The Tigers had not returned a punt for a score against Ole Miss since Norman Jefferson took one in from 65 yards in 1983.
Davis also chipped in 99 rushing yards on 21 carries, starting in the place of LaBrandon Toefield who was hampered with an ankle injury. Toefield was available for seven first half carries for 40 yards but was not seen in the second half, and Davis ended his night with an ankle sprain in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers were, to an extent, able to effectively implement their running game against Ole Miss but, along with the passing game, could not close out the majority of drives with scores. LSU posted 188 yards against Ole Miss but had just one touchdown – a 29-yard reverse to Michael Clayton in the second quarter that gave LSU its first lead, 10-7.
"The injuries kind of messed us up," said Davis. "We were moving the ball pretty well. Some things they couldn't stop. But when we needed the big plays, we couldn't get them. That's what kind of got us in the end."
LSU and Ole Miss swapped punts following Davis' return, the second leaving the Tigers with possession at their 20 with 6:20 to play in the third quarter. Following two runs, 8 and 6 yards, from Davis, Davey threw three straight incomplete passes but was redeemed on the third-and-10 pass when Ole Miss was called for pass interference.
The call moved LSU close to midfield, and Davis carried twice again for 4 and 8 yards. Then on first-and-10 at the Ole Miss 39, Davey went back to the air and connected in the end zone with Clayton, who scooped the ball off the ground and cradled it into his chest for his second score of the night.
"It was an inside post," Clayton detailed. "I released inside and Ro saw me deep. He threw it and there wasn't anybody else but me. I focused on the tip of the ball and pulled it in."
LSU owned a 24-21 lead with 3:38 to go in the third quarter and appeared, for the second week in a row, to have avoided the third quarter swoon that had plagued it earlier in the season. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the game had four quarters.
The two teams began trading punts again through the remainder of the third and halfway through the fourth quarter. Another miscue from LSU's punting team resulted in Ole Miss getting a hand on another Jones' punt, this one he was kicking from inside his own 5. The ball, which the wind didn't help, tumbled down to the LSU 35, setting up the Rebels with a short field and a near-guarantee that they would have a chance to tie the game.
Manning, however, went for the lead. Following two Joe Gunn carries down to the LSU 17, Manning scrambled out of the pocket and threw a crossing route pass to tight end Doug Zeigler, who made the catch near the 5-yard line and trucked into the end zone to give the lead back to Ole Miss.
The Tigers had to play from behind with 6:26 left in the game – plenty of time to answer the Rebels, even with a time-consuming running game. The problem for LSU was that it didn't have the luxury of using its top two backs. So with Toefield and Davis sidelines, Devery Henderson assumed the role of go-to back.
On first-and-10 at the Ole Miss 43, Henderson got the call and advanced a yard before getting the ball stripped by linebacker Lanier Goethe. Kenny Jackson recovered for the rebels at the 42, giving Manning another short stage to perform his final act.
Behind a 33-yard run from Gunn, during which he had the ball stripped but recovered at the Ole Miss 20, the Rebels moved back into the LSU red zone. Six plays later, Manning found Zeigler again for a 4-yard touchdown to secure the game.
"The second touchdown, I didn't know where Eli was throwing it," said Zeigler. "It was just up in the air and I wanted to go get it, and I made a dive and went after it."
The Rebels logged touchdowns all five times they advanced into the LSU red zone, starting with their initial breach in the first quarter. On its second possession of the game, Ole Miss went 36-yards on 7 plays and recorded the game's first touchdown on a 1-yard Gunn leap over the pile. Gunn totaled 91 yards on 20 carries, including another 1-yard plunge in the second quarter that put the Rebels ahead, 14-10.
Manning converted on a fourth-and-10 play on the drive that set up Gunn's second score. Passing up a chance to kick a field goal from over 40 yards away, Manning connected with rangy wide receiver Bill Flowers down to the LSU 3. Despite doing a fair job covering the rest of the Ole Miss receiving corps effectively, the Tigers had no answer for Flowers, who made six catches for 66 yards.
LSU got its first score in the first quarter on a 26-yard field goal from John Corbello and then took the lead in the second quarter on the Clayton reverse play.
"It was a play we put in during the week," said Clayton. "We were running it with Devery, but I happen to get the call. We practiced on it with repetition and got it down to perfection for the game."
Although he totaled 85 yards on three catches, LSU wide receiver Josh Reed was mainly a non-factor in the loss to Ole Miss. He came into the game at No. 2 in the nation in receiving yards, but his biggest catch, a 34-yarder in the fourth quarter, was all for naught when it was followed one play later by Henderson's costly fumble.
"I don't think they were double-covering (Reed) or anything like that," said Saban. "Basically, it was the pressure and our inability to read down the field. He was open several times in the game, ad we didn't get the ball to him. We were just not in sync, so that was the problem."
The LSU defense had its moments, forcing Manning out of the pocket on occasion but could never manage a sack. The only mistake Manning made was on a deep second quarter pass that Randall Gay intercepted at the LSU 25. The turnover led to the Tigers' first touchdown.
The Tigers' next assignment has them heading, borrowing from another Jerry Reed classic, "Eastbound and Down," for Saturday afternoon's contest at Alabama. While the boys were thirsty for Atlanta and the SEC Championship game, there are still goals within reach.
"We're not going to let the season go sour, if that's what you're talking about," said Davey. "We've got enough leaders on the team to say, ‘This is what we call the 24-hour rule. Whether we win or lose, you got 24 hours to get over it.' Then we regroup and get back together. We have enough people on this team, young and old guys, that are not going to let this season go sour."