OXFORD, Miss.-- In Woody Widenhofer's finale as head coach at Vanderbilt, the Commodores jumped out to a 20-3 lead, but were unable to hold it. Eli Manning guided Ole Miss to a 38-27 comeback win and frustrated Vandy's hopes for upsetting the Rebels in Oxford, something they had done in 1999.
Manning, who has led Ole Miss to a number of comebacks this year, threw for 151 yards in the final quarter (after being held to 135 yards in the first three). The Rebels' sophomore phenom threw 3 touchdown passes in the furious fourth quarter to bring the Rebels back. The Commodore defense had forced Manning into 3 interceptions in the first half, but Manning was able to rally his troops for the win.
"I thought we came into this game ready to play, and I thought we gave good effort," Widenhofer told the press in his final postgame press conference. "As we all know, the game lasts 60 minutes, and we didn't play a full 60 minutes."
The Commodores finish the season 2-9, 0-8 in the SEC. Ole Miss finished 7-4, and kept its hopes for a postseason bowl very much alive.
Quarterback Greg Zolman, playing in his final college game, completed 23 of 41 passes for 286 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was unable to lead his team to a victory here, as he had done 2 years ago. His 3 touchdown-pass performance tied a school record held by Whit Taylor for career touchdown passes (41). He ended his career with 7,981 passing yards, also a school record.
Senior captain Nate Morrow delivered a rousing pre-game speech to the team, and the Commodores came out strong. Vanderbilt opened the game with a nice 12-play scoring drive on the game's first possession, the touchdown coming on a 26-yard scoring strike from Zolman to M. J. Garrett. Jimmy Stover's extra point was missed, and Vandy led 6-0.
Ole Miss countered with a field goal to cut the lead to 6-3, and the second quarter became a comedy of turnovers, with neither team able to capitalize. The Commodore offense gave up an interception and a fumble, but the defense forced Eli Manning into 3 second-quarter interceptions. The half ended with the score 6-3, and the Rebels left the field to scattered boos from their home crowd.
In the third quarter Dan Stricker caught a 50-yard scoring pass from Zolman. Later in the quarter Zolman later led the Commodores on a 45-yard drive, scoring the touchdown himself on a 3-yard run. Ole Miss answered with a 13-yard scoring strike to Charles Stackhouse, and Vandy led 20-10 at the end of the third quarter.
Manning hit Bill Flowers with a 25-yard pass early in the fourth, but Vandy answered almost immediately when Zolman hit Jason Mathenia with a beautifully thrown pass to the end zone. Vandy led 27-17 with 10:47 left in the game.
That would be the end of Vandy's scoring, however: the Rebels scored the final 21 points of the game on two Manning touchdown passes, and a 10-yard run by Joe Gunn.
Widenhofer expressed his emotion as he faced the press. "It's sad, because I'm close to these kdis and I'm never going to be involved with them again," said Widenhofer. "It's emotional because I love Vanderbilt University. I love Nashville. I love the players, and severing the relationship is tough.
"I'm not bitter. The only regret I have is that I didn't get the program turned around and that the Chancellor didn't come here three or four years earlier."
Dan Stricker had another huge receiving game, hauling in 11 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown. However, he also dropped a critical pass on third down late in the fourth quarter, forcing the Commodores to give up the ball.
"I make that catch most of the time," said Stricker. "Unfortunately that didn't go for me on that pass. I pride myself on being a clutch person. I am glad we were able to get the ball back so I could have more opportunities to make plays. I didn't want to end my year on a dropped pass."
Running back Rodney Williams, also playing the final game of his career, became only the seventh Commodore in school history to surpass 2,000 yards in his career. His 16 rushes for 96 yards in his final game gave him a total of 2,021 total.
Safety Jerrol Jackson picked off Manning twice in the first half, and linebacker Nate Morrow added another interception. The game had originally been scheduled for September 15, but had been postponed to December 1 due to terrorist attacks. 39, 212 attended, and the weather was near-perfect.