Independence Day

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 27, 2002

SHREVEPORT, La. &045; Hero or goat?

You know how it is when you gamble. It’s kind of like those true-or-false questions back in elementary school where you either win or lose &045; no in-between, gray area that’s up for debate.

It’s the same way in football, but the ramifications are much, much worse &045; win or lose.

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Fortunately for Ole Miss &045; unfortunately for Nebraska &045; a fake punt play called by the Cornhuskers didn’t work, and the Rebels capitalized with a couple scores to help take a 27-23 win in the MainStay Independence Bowl Friday night.

The play gave the Rebels the break they needed, and the momentum gave them the win they really wanted &045; against a storied program from the Big 12 Conference that many thought would have their way with Ole Miss.

&uot;Don’t play us in Shreveport, huh,&uot; said Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe, whose Rebels are 3-0 in Independence Bowl games. &uot;We found a way to win again, and I can’t be more proud of what happened. It takes great effort, intensity and team football. We got better as we prepared for the bowl game. Our seniors were focused. This game was important to them.&uot;

What helped everything fall into place was the Cornhuskers’ decision to try a fake punt with a three-point lead while on their own 36 late in the third quarter. Fullback Judd Davies threw a pass to a streaking Marques Simmons, but it fell incomplete.

Hero or goat? Well …

Ole Miss got the ball at the Nebraska 35 trailing. Eli Manning connected on a 17-yard pass to Bill Flowers, the Cornhuskers were called for a pass interference to give the Rebels a first down at the Nebraska 3.

Backup quarterback David Morris subbed for Manning, and Toward Sanford needed two handoffs to plow over the goal line to give the Rebels a 24-20 lead with 3:24 left in the third quarter.

And it was accompanied by a bucketload of momentum.

&uot;At times we were able to put things away but not with much consistency on the offensive side of it,&uot; Nebraska head coach Frank Solich said. &uot;On the defensive side, those guys played very, very hard. Special teams came into play a little bit, but we would have liked to have a little bit more. We had worked on it (fake punt). It was the first fake punt we had done in a long, long time.&uot;

Apparently so, and the response didn’t answer much. Cutcliffe stopped short of second-guessing the Cornhuskers’ decision to go for it with the small lead on their own side of the field, but he accepted it.

Especially since it made the Cornhuskers look like goats.

&uot;The fake punt was a big play,&uot; Cutcliffe said. &uot;I was on our sideline thinking turnover, turnover, turnover. I

know Coach Solich thought it was a good gamble, and fortunately the luck went our way this time. We needed the ball, and we needed some good field position.&uot;

The Cornhuskers couldn’t respond offensively after that, and they were pretty stagnant moving the football against an Ole Miss defense that tightened up as the game went on. Nebraska had more and more trouble moving the football with its option attack and could only account for two Josh Brown field goals for its entire scoring in the second half.

Ole Miss had more and more success moving the football in the second half as Manning finished the game with 313 yards passing, enough to earn the Offensive Player of the Game honor.

&uot;Overall, I thought we were well-prepared coming into this game,&uot; Nebraska defensive end Chris Kelsay said. &uot;We knew what type of offense Mississippi had. They took advantage of a lot of mistakes. My hat goes off to them. Eli is a great quarteback. Get in his face, and he completes a pass from time to time. He’s a very composed quarterback, and he sits in the pocket very well.&uot;

The Rebels surrendered their second Brown field goal after Sanford’s score, a 29-yarder that cut the lead to 24-23 with 7:50 left. The Rebels struck back immediately when Manning passes of 19 and 32 yards set up a 43-yard field goal from Jonathan Nichols with 4:38 left for the 27-23 lead.

Nebraska came up empty on its last two possessions, including a Hail Mary attempt from Jammal Lord that the Rebels’ Travis Johnson intercepted as time ran out.

&uot;We ran the ball effectively early in the game, and that allowed us to use some play-action,&uot; Solich said. &uot;In the second half we couldn’t get the running game going and were forced into passing situations on second and third and long. They’re a good defensive football team, and I think that came into play today.&uot;

The Rebels weren’t as fortunate on both sides of the ball in the first half, never leading up until Sanford’s score. The Cornhuskers took a 10-7 lead before holding Ole Miss to a punt, one that DeJuan Groce returned 60 yards for a touchdown to deflate the Rebels’ fans and give Nebraska an impressive 17-7 lead.

That came after the Rebels got their first touchdown thanks to an interception from former Cathedral standout Von Hutchins, who returned it to the Nebraska 27.

&uot;I thought at the beginning of the game we were too slow,&uot; Manning said. &uot;You have to get used to the speed a little bit. We came out and started running the ball a little. Our defense did a great job. I think after a few possessions we kind of calmed down and everybody started doing their jobs. It’s a great win for us. People expected Nebraska to come in here and beat us.&uot;

The Rebels caught fire right at the end of the first half when they put together perhaps their most productive drive, a nine-play, 82-yard drive that was all Manning passes until Sanford finished it up with a 1-yard TD run with 1:32 left.

Ole Miss held Nebraska on its final possession of the half, and the Rebels received the opening kickoff in the second half. They drove 56 yards before Nichols connected on a 37-yard field goal with 9:02 left to tie the score at 17-17.

&uot;When we got the ball at the end of the first half, I told the offense we had a great chance to get two scores before they (NU) touched the ball again,&uot; Cutcliffe said. &uot;It’s an opportunity you don’t get every game &045; to score at the end of the half and take the second half kickoff and score again. And it’s a golden opportunity. That’s big.&uot;