Rose to the occasion

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2003

OXFORD &045; It did not seem like a golden moment for the LSU defense.

The Tigers, ranked third in the nation in total defense, had surrendered back-to-back Ole Miss drives deep at their own end of the field.

One netted seven points, a 10-yard pass from Eli Manning to Brandon Jacobs for the eventual final score, 17-14. The other LSU was able to wipe its brow as Jonathan Nichols failed on his second kick of the night.

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Another LSU offense three and out gave the Rebels a chance to drive for the gamewinning score.

&uot;Our guys were ready to go back out there,&uot; Tiger defensive tackle Chad Lavalais said. &uot;I kind of thought ‘I hope (our offense) throws another interception so we can go out there and stop them again.’ Put the game on our shoulders. It’s been that way … all season.&uot;

And it continued in that Ole Miss drive when Manning could not completed any of his three passes, then fell to the ground after getting his feet tangled up with an offensive lineman.

The Rebels had one final desperation heave with 9 seconds left, but it was batted down just like their chances for a first Southeastern Conference West title.

&uot;(LSU is) definitely the best defense we’ve seen this year,&uot; Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe said. &uot;The Southeastern Conference always has two or three people that just play at that level on defense. (The Tigers) are as good as anyone in the country.&uot;

In five road games this season, LSU’s defense still has not allowed a first half point.

The Rebels did trail 10-7 at the break, but those points came off a 6-yard interception return by Travis Johnson, who telegraphed the eyes of Matt Mauck on LSU’s first offensive play from scrimmage.

Lavalais, who had four tackles (one for a loss) Saturday and leads the team with six sacks, is a Bronko Nagurski Trophy finalist, given annually to the nation’s top defender.

His tackle midway through the first quarter extended his streak of recording at least one tackle in the last 40 games.

&uot;Defense has been the juice for this team with its consistency,&uot; Tiger receiver Michael Clayton said. &uot;They’ve always been able to give (the offense) a chance.&uot;

&uot;Our defense competed like gangbusters,&uot; LSU head coach Nick Saban said. &uot;We could have melted down, but they showed a lot of character. It wasn’t always pretty, but they showed a lot of maturity.&uot;

SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN &045; Not looking at paper and records, and just going on the play on the field, it is easy to see Ole Miss is light years from the teams that went through November 3-8 the past three seasons.

While the Rebels could have wrapped up a trip to Atlanta and the Georgia Dome Saturday with a win, a peachy weekend is not out of the possible scenarios.

If Ole Miss can knock off bitter rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl Thanksgiving Day, it will cross its fingers and squint its eyes, as it hopes Arkansas can dethrone LSU from its pedestal.

&uot;It’s our last game and we’ve still got a shot at representing the West (in the championship game),&uot; Manning said. &uot;We have to go out and do our best. The Mississippi State game is always a big game so we’ll just have to focus, play hard and smart football and try to find a way to win.&uot;

The Bulldogs (2-9, 1-6) have looked hapless all season, but especially dismal and effortless since Oct. 17 when head coach Jackie Sherrill made known his plans to retire at the end of the year.

Teams have run over the Bulldogs like soup through a fork. In each of the nine losses, State’s opponent scored 31 points or more.

Even in wins over Vanderbilt and Memphis, the Commodores and Tigers earned 21 and 27 points, respectively.

&uot;It’s going to be a tough game. It’s Jackie Sherrill’s last game, and always a big rivalry between Ole Miss and State,&uot; Ole Miss receiver Chris Collins said. &uot;We have to have a great week of practice and get ready to win.&uot;

Carrie’s strong finish

JACKSON &045; It’s truly a disappointment that the season had to end the way it did for Alcorn State.

A five-game winning streak. The first win in nine years over Jackson State. In the hunt for a berth in the SWAC Championship even after playing its final regular season game.

Alabama State, however, trumped the Braves with its win and sent them back to Lorman to get a head start on next season while the Hornets will face the winner of the Bayou Classic in next month’s championship in Birmingham, Ala.

The Braves, however, left Veterans Memorial Stadium in perhaps its best mood ever after knocking off the Tigers Saturday. The biggest smile had to come from quarterback Donald Carrie, who threw three touchdowns passes and ran for three more to highlight the offensive onslaught that included 625 yards total offense.

It also marked the end of a season of turnaround for the junior quarterback who struggled late in the season in 2002.

&uot;Focused,&uot; said receiver Corvin Johnson, who had two touchdown catches Saturday. &uot;About five weeks ago we had a team meeting. After we lost that game, he said, ‘What are we going to do? Let it go or turn it around?’ He’s the leader of this team. We had no choice but to follow him.&uot;

The numbers on Saturday were astonishing as the Braves put up their most balanced game offensively this year and perhaps in quite some time. Carrie threw for 259 yards by completing 13 of 27 passes with one interception, and the offense ran for 366 yards with 10 people carrying the ball &045; including Carrie’s nine carries for 44 yards without getting sacked.

Despite the interception, Carrie made good decisions with the ball and continued to do a much better job in the pocket in front of strong coverage.

&uot;We did pretty much what we wanted to do on offense,&uot; Alcorn head coach Johnny Thomas said. &uot;We had one turnover, but we controlled the football all day long. We got a huge kickoff return from (Lonnie) Teagle (in the second quarter) that set the tone for the rest of the game, in my opinion. We were just so happy to come out with a victory.&uot;

Carrie’s efforts, however, were crucial as he finished the season with 2,826 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The numbers were better than last year’s 2,234, 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions after he threw for 2,743 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a red-shirt freshman in 2001.

He burned the Tigers with the deep ball at time Saturday, including a 46-yarder to Fayette native Kelvin Clark, a 50-yarder to Nate Hughes and a 33-yarder to Johnson that came for a score.

&uot;The biggest improvement for me is staying focused,&uot; Carrie said. &uot;Whatever happens throughout the game, you have to stay focused until the end. After our team went 0-11 (in 2000, his freshman year), a lot of people would have quit. We stayed together and worked hard. We never quit, and that’s the mentality of this team.&uot;

The good thing about Carrie, however, is he’s still got a year remaining while other superior quarterbacks in the conference &045; JSU’s Robert Kent and Grambling’s Bruce Eugene &045; are seniors this year. And on a day where Carrie matched up with Kent, who appeared to be still hampered by a serious turf toe injury, it was Carrie who stole the show.

Kent threw for 194 yards and one touchdown while getting sacked three times and picked off three times on Saturday &045; a year after torching the Braves for five TD passes. Add to that the efforts from the running game &045; Andrew Burks’ 96 yards and Sidney Dumas’ 72 &045; and the Tigers’ defense never could adjust on Saturday.

&uot;The line blocked very well, and Donald made good decisions,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;We were able to capitalize on the things Jackson was doing. But it’s what we want to do &045; we don’t believe in a one-dimensional offense. If you give us the run, we’ve got to be able to run the ball. If you give us the pass, we’ve got to be able to pass the football. We believe in a balanced attack, and we demonstrated that not only today but in the last five, six or seven weeks.&uot;

Sports editor

Adam Daigle

contributed to this report.