Commentary -

Labeling games as "make or break" seems like overkill most of the time, but arguably the Rebs faced that scenario when they journeyed to South Carolina. With their backs against the wall, the team responded with a 31-28 win over the 25th-ranked Gamecocks.

I've seen a lot of teams at the crossroads before - teetering on the edge of disaster or keeping their hopes alive.

Sometimes the pendulum swings their way, sometimes it hits them in the face.

The 2003 Rebels reached a crossroads headed to Gainesville last year, but I don't believe their see-saw was titlted as far toward "disaster" as the 2004 Rebs were as they loaded the bus to Columbia, SC, last Friday. The task in front of them was daunting and the 25th-ranked Gamecocks awaited.

Prior to the Florida game last year, at least the team still had team-wide hope and belief. I'm not sure I can definitively say that about the pre-USC Rebs last week. Sure, they still had the hard exterior and exuded confidence on the outside, but it wasn't the same feeling as a year ago when the Rebs were 2-2 and headed to the Swamp. There was doubt in this year's bunch. They seemed to be, after five uninspiring games, still searching for their identity, unity and leadership. Those intangibles were in place last year, which made me confident to predict a win over the Gators. I wouldn't have touched a prediction on the South Carolina game last week with a 10-foot pole.

The normally regimented Ole Miss coaching staff decided to give the team a somewhat manufactured spark. For the first time since I was old enough to remember, the Rebs used three quarterbacks - Ethan Flatt, Micheal Spurlock and, for the first action of his career, heralded Robert Lane. Surprisingly, they all got one snap each on the Rebs' first offensive series.

Guess what? Strategically, it didn't work. Ole Miss quickly went three-and-out.

But psychologically the ploy had an unbelievable impact. The sideline instantly became so energized that you could cut the excitement with a knife.

"Our coaches sent us a message that we were going to pull out all the stops and everybody was going to contribute - one way or the other," said senior Co-Captain Marcus Johnson. "It sent a wave of excitement through us I haven't felt since last year."

The coaches were going by feel and their feel told them to continue what they began. They sensed the energy level of the team and didn't appear too worried about production at the time. They wanted a spark and felt if they got one that the production would follow. They were correct.

The Rebs rode the wave of enthusiasm to an early 14-0 lead - with all three QBs contributing - and held the momentum for most of the first half. The 79,100 in attendance had some quiet times in that first 30 minutes, despite their team coming back to close the score to 21-14 at half.

The Rebel sideline was, for lack of a better word, frenzied.

The Ole Miss defense followed the lead of the coaches also, stopping USC cold in the early going.

But then South Carolina gained some momentum and actually got the lead early in the fourth quarter. At 28-24 USC, the moment of truth had come.

The excitement from the early coaching strategy was gone. It was time for the Rebs to make a decision as a team - show some will-not-be-denied character or slip back into the funk that had plagued them in three of the previous five games.

They chose the former, buckling up even tighter. The defense denied the Gamecock offense any more points and the offense got it done in their very last opportunity - a fourth-and-10 at the Gamecock 29 - when Flatt found WR Bill Flowers open in the USC end zone and threw a perfect pass to the corner, barely in bounds where only Bill could catch it.

Don't ask me where this team has been - I don't know - but these were the Rebs I have been waiting on - and expecting - since the first practice day in August.

The heroes were plentiful and I will not let them go unnoticed.

Start with all three QBs, who grabbed the unorthodox strategy by the horns and directed the Rebs to their best offensive performance of the year. Remember, USC has one of the top defenses in the SEC and the Rebs, except for a lull in the second half, dominated them.

Go directly to the offensive line. For the most part, they mauled a strong USC DL. They not only protected the QBs with a precision we have grown accustomed to in the past five years, but they opened holes against the number one rush defense in the SEC most of the day.

Flatt and Flowers were two more heroic figures. Flatt was knocked silly on a late possession, but came back in on the last Reb possession to direct the team to the winning score. Flowers saw his first action since the Vandy game when he suffered a lacerated kidney. Talk about putting it all on the line for the team.

WR Kerry Johnson, broken hand and all, made several big catches and had one TD reception called back.

TB Vashon Pearson was denied his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game, but he got 96 yards and scored a TD. He said postgame that he would gladly give up his streak for a win.

The defensive front - led by seemingly unblockable DT McKinley Boykin - held SC's offense to 142 rushing yards and harrassed the QBs most of the day.

Sophomore LB Patrick Willis was the team's leading tackler and had three or four huge plays, including a QB sack on South Carolina's last-ditch desperation drive that knocked them slightly out of field goal range and a chance for the tie and overtime.

WS Charles Clark and CB Travis Johnson - who had been picked on earlier in the game - stood tall at the end with back-to-back batted down passes to secure the win.

Backup Punter Wesley Bryan was pressed into kickoff duty while PK Jonathan Nichols continues to heal from a bruised toe and the little-used senior responded with five of six kickoffs being touchbacks.

Senior P Cody Ridgeway averaged 48.2 yards a kick and had four kicks settle inside the SC 20, three on the USC 7.

The special teams - save getting sucked in on a Gamecock fake punt for a first down - were very good.

And last, but certainly not least, the oft-criticized coaches pushed all the right buttons when they absolutely, positively had to in order to save the season.

The bottom line? The Rebs momentarily swung the pendulum back on the side of hope and belief. While it doesn't get any easier from this point on, this was a shot in the arm that coupld propel them to an excellent end to what has been a dubious start prior to last Saturday.

From my limited viewpoint, one thing is likely. Had the Rebs not "found themselves" last Saturday, the rest of the season might not have been worth watching.

Now, the game is on.

OM Spirit Top Stories