Ethan Flatt looks forward to visit from Vols

At times during his youth, Ole Miss quarterback Ethan Flatt thought about what it would be like to play for Vanderbilt or Tennessee. He was a youngster playing football growing up in Nashville, so it made all the sense in the world for him to think along those lines.

Flatt, in his third year with the Rebels but a sophomore in eligibility, arrived at Ole Miss as a backup to Eli Manning in the summer of 2002. Every quarterback who came to Ole Miss from 1999 through 2003 knew they would likely have that same role behind the eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick.

But they all knew there would be life after Eli. A chance. An opportunity. And that's what motivated them.

Flatt, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound David Lipscomb High School graduate, made his first start as a collegiate quarterback against his hometown team, the Vanderbilt Commodores. That was a week after he entered the Rebels' 28-7 loss at Alabama with his team trailing 21-0.

Flatt led the Rebels to their lone score of the game in Tuscaloosa, a 10-play, 66-yard drive culminating with a 6-yard pass to tight end Eric Rice.

Then came Vandy.

Flatt attended Commodore games as a kid growing up. He had a lot of family and friends in town for the game here on Sept. 18. The Rebels trailed 23-10 midway through the third quarter, but Flatt showed the calmness and poise of a seasoned field general as he led the Rebels all the way back.

He finished the game completing 21-of-32 passes for 187 yards. He was 4-of-4 for 39 yards in a 10-play, 56-yard drive that resulted in Jonathan Nichols' 34-yard field goal with 2:23 remaining in regulation which tied the game at 23-23.

In overtime, the Rebel defense held Vandy. The Rebel offense then set Nichols, the Lou Groza Award winner in 2003 as the nation's best collegiate placekicker, up for a 35-yard effort and a 26-23 UM win.

The next week the Rebel offense was productive in scoring 32 points, but four Flatt interceptions showed the young signal-caller might have taken a step back as the Rebs fell 37-32 to Wyoming.

Ole Miss then defeated Arkansas State on homecoming as Flatt went 18-of-24 with one interception and two touchdown passes. But the entire team was less than impressive in a 28-21 win over the outmatched Indians.

So at 2-3 on the season and 1-1 in Southeastern Conference play, the Rebel coaches shook things up a little. Make that a lot.

On the Rebels' first possession at South Carolina and with the team looking for a spark, Flatt took the first snap and threw incomplete to receiver Taye Biddle. Fourth-year junior quarterback Micheal Spurlock, who entered the season as the starter, took the second snap for a 6-yard gain. Redshirt freshman Robert Lane, a Parade All-American quarterback in high school in his first action for the Rebels, took the third snap but lost three yards.

The game was on. Lou Holtz' Gamecocks were surprised. The Rebel sideline was excited again.

The three-quarterback rotation continued as the game progressed, and Ole Miss defeated the 25th-ranked Gamecocks 31-28 to give new life to a season going nowhere.

Flatt led the Rebels downfield for the winning score with the savvy of a seasoned veteran. Trailing 28-24 with 2:31 to go, Flatt and company marched from their own 27 until they were faced with a fourth and 10 at the USC 29.

With scoring-zone effectiveness Rebel fans had come to expect under Manning, Flatt threw a beautiful high spiral to the left side of the end zone that floated into the awaiting arms of sure-handed senior receiver Bill Flowers, whose father Richmond was an All-American at Tennessee.

The Rebel defense came through when USC got the ball back with 1:05 to go, and Ole Miss had its biggest victory of the season.

It evened the season's record at 3-3, not quite where most thought they'd be following a 10-win Cotton Bowl season last year.

But at 2-1 in SEC play, the Rebels are now focused on the next big game – Tennessee, which comes to Oxford 4-1 overall and 2-1 in league play.

Flatt can't wait.

"Obviously everybody knows the success they've had and the history of their program," said Flatt, an all-state quarterback in Class 2A in Tennessee as a senior in high school. "We know we'll have to play really well to be successful. They're a great team. It's the next game, and hopefully we can go out and get it done."

Flatt admits he's thought of scenarios and situations like the one coming up on ESPN2 Saturday night when the Volunteers meet his Rebels at 8 p.m. (CDT) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium/Hollingsworth Field.

"You think about it and dream about it," he said. "Now that it's here, it's amazing. I'm just thankful for the opportunity."

He's been thankful all year. When the situation called for a change in quarterbacks during the Alabama contest, Flatt, who had studied under Manning for two seasons, was ready to give it his best shot.

Then when the situation called for three quarterbacks to play last Saturday, he was ready for that as well.

"It was great for our offense," he said. "I felt it helped us be successful. It increased our productivity. It helped take the pressure off any single one of us and helped us just play the game better.

"I think the main reason it worked was because it wasn't like there were any pre-planned series or drives that we were rotating in and out. It was all dependent on the situation. It was like what do we need right now. We all have different strengths. They just threw us in there randomly, and I think that's what helped us get the job done."

Finishing the job that day before 80,000 in Columbia, S.C., came in the form of a one-play move the chains - or perhaps score - scenario for the Rebels.

"It was obviously a fourth and 10 situation, kind of a desperation situation," Flatt said. "I just threw it up to Bill, and he made an unbelievable catch. He's had a knack for those during his career, and he did it again."

The catch and the victory helped the Rebs renew their enthusiasm for the rest of the season - starting with Tennessee.

"Beating a top 25 team was big," Flatt said. "They were a really good team and we won on the road. The victory has given us a lot of confidence and made us want to work even harder. We still control our own destiny. We've got a co-SEC West title to defend."

Flatt said the past four weeks or so have been a great learning experience for him as he improves as a college quarterback.

"I think I continue to get better every week, but obviously I'm not nearly there yet," he said. "I think a good measure of my maturity were those two two-minute drills last week (at USC). Obviously we were successful on the last one, and on the first one we got down there and fumbled. But it's a process. The longer we go, hopefully the better I can get and the better we can get as a team."

Offensively the Rebels, so potent with the football the last few seasons, have come a long way the past month.

"A lot of our probems earlier were penalties and turnovers that were hindering us," Flatt said. "To perform the way we did against South Carolina, one of the best defenses in the SEC, gives us a lot of confidence. It shows we can play well on offense and have a chance to win every game."

Flatt's mentor and predecessor, Eli Manning, will attend the game Saturday night because the Giants have an open date this weekend.

Ironically so do the Colts. Peyton Manning, the Tennessee alum, will be in Oxford as well.

A seam-bursting crowd of red and blue and orange - more than 62,000 - is expected to attend the game. Even the standing-room-only tickets have been gone for days for this one.

Flatt said the late start will make it a long day of waiting. But he's gotten used to waiting throughout his career.

"We'll sit in the hotel and watch a lot of games," he said. "It's tough waiting that long, but also the night games are just unbelievable experiences. They're a lot of fun. We're looking forward to it."

A lot of Flatt's friends and family will make the four-hour drive from middle Tennessee to north Mississippi. Others will watch back home on TV.

Many of his friends are Tennessee fans. Playing the Vols is something this Music City kid has looked forward to for a long time.

Now it is here.

"When I was in middle school, it was the Peyton Manning era," he said. "All of us were obviously watching every Tennessee game. They were huge and it was fun to watch. I grew up watching them."

Saturday night in Oxford, Ethan Flatt will get to do much more than watch.

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