LSU tackles Ole Miss in home finale

My, how times have changed.

Twelve months ago, the matchup between LSU and Ole Miss had national title implications, with the Tigers needing a win to stay alive in the hunt for a Sugar Bowl berth. CBS was out in full force to cover the battle in Oxford, Miss., as red-hot son-of-a/brother-of-a-legend Eli Manning took on a rampant LSU team that had laid waste to opponents all season long.


The result was an old fashioned knock down, drag out fight that left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone involved. The Tigers eeked out a 17-14 win that finished with Manning being knocked over by an offensive lineman pushed into him by a charging LSU blitz, ending any hope of the upset Rebel fans and television analysts had been crowing about all week leading up to the game. For their part in the victory, the Tigers were pelted with insults and hurled objects as they boarded the team bus after the game, prompting head coach Nick Saban to make a rare criticism of an opposing team's fans during his Monday press conference two days later.


Now Ole Miss is heading to Baton Rouge for a rematch, but without any trace of the spitfire and venom that surrounded the 2003 encounter.


LSU is 7-2 and eyeing a Cotton Bowl berth, knowing any chance of a BCS bowl game went out the window when they were thrashed 45-16 by Georgia in Athens in October. The Rebels are a wreck at 3-6, with their three victories coming in overtime against Vanderbilt, by seven points on Homecoming against Arkansas State, and then by three points one week later against South Carolina.


Two of their losses are to Memphis and Wyoming.


How much have things changed in the last 12 months? When the game kicks off in Death Valley at 7 p.m. on November 20, the only television cameras in the stadium will be the ones broadcasting the game on TigerVision, LSU's own pay-per-view site.


ESPN passed on the game. ESPN2 passed on the game. CBS passed on the game. Even Jefferson Pilot passed on the game.


The times, they are a-changing, indeed.


Sophomore quarterback Ethan Flatt leads the Rebels into Tiger Stadium for their matchup with LSU, one of three quarterbacks Tiger fans are likely to see on the night. Flatt is ranked among the top quarterbacks in the SEC, passing for over 170 yards per game, but his impact is limited by a rotation that features Michael Spurlock and former LSU commitment Robert Lane.


Lane, Tiger fans will remember, verbally committed to the Tigers but backed out and signed with Ole Miss when the purple and gold added JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn to the roster. Lane left, if you listen to the rampant rumors, because he did not want to battle Russell and Flynn for a starting job. Now, with the matchup between the two SEC West rivals looming, Russell is the only one of the three to earn a start, but like Lane has hardly set the world on fire with his performance on the field.


The only other member of the red, white, and blue to make any impact on offense in 2004, aside from Flatt, has been junior running back Vashon Person, who averages better than 80 yards per game on the ground for an offensive unit that ranks in the bottom third of every statistical category in the conference.


The defense is not much better, either, also ranking in the bottom third of every statistical category in the SEC, pointing to a teamwide problem that has led to several blowout losses for the Rebels. Sophomore defensive back Charles Clark is the only member of the defensive unit to rank in the top ten in the conference in tackles, while junior lineman McKinley Boykin is the only defenseman to rank in tackles for loss.


In fact, the only positive for Ole Miss this season has been placekicker Jonathon Nichols, who once again ranks among the nations elite and is tops in the SEC with an eight points-per-game average, comfortably ahead of LSU's kicking dup of Ryan Gaudet and Chris Jackson.


While the Rebels have redefined ‘fall from grace' in 2004, going from an appearance in the Cotton Bowl to a season in which they will finish ineligible for any postseason play whatsoever, their Tiger counterparts have not been the dominant force they were predicted to be before the season began either.


A quarterback rotation featuring a redshirt signal-caller and a fifth-year senior has led to critical inconsistencies on offense, and top receiver Craig Davis spends more time wide open on the field but being ignored than he does being thrown to in tight coverage.


The running game, a staple of LSU's offense during their run to the national championship last season, has been hit-and-miss this year, and was never more obvious than when the team rushed for 58 yards against Troy State, and then picked up 233 yards on the ground against Alabama, the nation's top-rated defense.


On defense, while the line has been able to get penetration and hurry opposing quarterbacks on nearly every down, the unit as a whole has had trouble with running backs ripping off large gains and is prone to giving up big plays. The best friend of opposing quarterbacks this season has often been LSU defensive backs Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, who have taken their preseason awards and thrown them out of the window as they have often found themselves beaten on deep balls hurled downfield by otherwise pedestrian signal callers.

The two teams, among the best in the nation in 2003, are struggling to find an identity in 2004 as the weight of expectations has at times threatened to crush anything the athletes have achieved on the field.


The Tigers, 7-2 on the season and sixty minutes shy of completing a home sweep, have been booed in their own stadium at times this season as the young offense has struggled to find a steady rhythm under the glare of the national spotlight.


The Rebels, who would love to be in LSU's position, are coming to the full realization that Eli Manning, now with the New York Giants, covered up more deficiencies than they originally thought.


November 20 will see little of the blood and hatred that surrounded the clash in 2003, and little of the trash-talking between the teams leading up to the game.


Right about now, the Rebels and the Tigers would both just like to see another win.

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