Rebels still aching for a bowl berth

Before the start of the 2002 season, former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning appealed to the university's sports information department not to promote his youngest son, Eli, as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.<br><br>Most figured the elder Manning was still smarting from 1997 when voters chose Michigan's Charles Woodson for college football's top award over his middle son, Peyton.

Perhaps Archie agreed with the Sports Illustrated assessment of Ole Miss in the pre-season – that the Rebels would be challenged to win enough games this season to support a meaningful campaign for Eli.

 

Ole Miss comes off its open week to face LSU with dwindling hopes of earning bowl eligibility. The Rebels are 5-5 on the season with a 2-4 mark in the Southeastern Conference. A loss at Georgia, 37-17, on Nov. 9 turned the lights out the Rebels hopes for claiming the West Division title.

 

It was also the fourth straight SEC loss for Ole Miss, which started its league slate with promising wins over Vanderbilt and Florida. But after a rout of Arkansas State, the Rebels fell in alphabetically and chronological succession to Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn.

 

"We are just trying to get back on schedule, back on target," said Eli Manning. "We need to focus on playing good football. We have lost four games in a row, which is never easy to handle. We need to keep our spirits up and get ready for LSU."

 

Manning was 12-of-25 for 176 yards and two interceptions in the loss against Georgia. It was only the third time his 21 career starts that he was held without a touchdown pass. He has 2,663 passing yards this season, placing him third on the Ole Miss single season list - four yards shy of Stewart Patridge in second place with 2,667.

 

Manning needs 285 passing yards to tie his school season record of 2,948 yards set last year.

 

With Manning's arm leading the way, there was optimism entering 2002 that Ole Miss could outdo last season's 7-5 record. But the big questions facing fourth-year coach David Cutcliffe came on defense. The Rebels finished 2001 sixth in the country in pass defense but had to replace 80 percent of its secondary and three-quarters of the defensive line.

 

As a result of inexperience and injuries, Ole Miss is a middle of the pack team on defense through ten games – rating No. 51 in pass efficiency, 67th against the run and 42nd overall.

 

Injuries have taken their toll on both sides of the ball for Ole Miss. Tight end Doug Zeigler was lost for the year in the Vanderbilt game when he broke his leg. He had been one of Manning's primary targets up until that time and was on the end of the Rebels' go-ahead and insurance touchdowns last year at LSU.

 

Strong-side linebacker Lanier Goethie broke his left foot in the Vandy game.

He missed the next two games and hasn't seen action since playing sparingly against Alabama and Arkansas. His status for the LSU game remains up in the air.

 

"I am hoping that this open date will give us enough time to get him back for either the LSU or Mississippi State game, hopefully both," said Cutcliffe. "We will have to see this week. What this open week has done is that his rehab has stepped it up a notch. As he responds to rehab, we will make the decision as to when he can go out in practice and try to run. He will know when he is ready."

 

Running back Robert Williams (ankle) was also hurt against Vanderbilt, and middle linebacker Eddie Strong (knee) missed the game with an injury that continues to hamper him through November.

 

Free safety Marcus Woodson (ACL) required season-ending surgery after the Memphis game, and weak safety Von Hutchins has played with a surgically repaired hand since midseason.

 

If the injury situation wasn't enough to deal with, Cutcliffe also had to make the tough decision to kick two players off the team for disciplinary reasons. Williams, who had missed five games with his injuries, and flanker Trey Fryfogle were dismissed on Nov. 11.

 

The loss of Fryfogle thins a receiving corps that hopes to have clutch split end Bill Flowers back from a shoulder separation for the LSU game.

 

Flowers led Ole Miss with six catches for 66 yards last season at LSU, where the Rebels enjoyed a 35-24 win in a game televised nationally on ESPN 2.

 

Saturday's contest, set for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff, will also air on ESPN2, but Cutcliffe is not counting on coincidence to lead his Rebels to another win at Tiger Stadium.

 

"Every year is its own animal," he said. "It does give you some positive thoughts, but LSU is tough. Our team knows how tough LSU is and how good they are. Our team knows that if you go out there and play as good as you can, you have a chance to win anywhere."

 

This will be the 91st meeting between LSU and Ole Miss since 1894. LSU is the second-most played opponent for Rebels, behind only Mississippi State. LSU holds a 49-37-4 advantage in the series, but Ole Miss has won four of the last five meetings since 1997.

 

Last year's win gave the Rebels three straight wins in Baton Rouge for the first time since winning four straight from 1953-1956. All-time in Baton Rouge, the Tigers hold a 33-24-1 advantage against the Rebels.

 

- Ole Miss Sports Information contributed to this story.


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