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15 years ago, Ole Miss-LSU decided the SEC West

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That time Eli Manning narrowly missed a trip to Atlanta.

Getty Images/Illustration by Red Cup Rebellion

This Saturday night, Ole Miss plays LSU in Baton Rouge. Though the Tigers aren’t as good as their lofty No. 5 ranking and their offense has struggled statistically, Coach O’s bunch is expected to roll through an awful Ole Miss defense. Vegas favors LSU by two touchdowns. It will probably not be an entertaining game.

There have been moments over the past 15 years, however, when this rivalry defined the SEC West race. That was never more true than 2003.

The lead-up to the 2003 LSU-Ole Miss game in 2003 was officially dubbed “Win the West Week” in Oxford, Miss. The mayor issued a formal proclamation and everything. Ole Miss was 6-0 in SEC play and ranked No. 14. The Tigers were just below them in the division at 5-1 and ranked No. 3. If the Rebs could pull out the upset at home, they’d cement the program’s first trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

The 2003 game didn’t go the Rebs’ way — Eli’s infamous trip on the deciding play gave LSU the game and kept Ole Miss out of Atlanta. Still, this was an extremely good game — like, extremely good — and we’re here to describe how wild it was.

Please first consider the cast of characters present that day.

LSU head coach Nick Saban (age 51). LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (age 28). LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher (age 37). Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe (age 49). Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning (age 22). There were 11 future NFL Draft picks on the field between Ole Miss and LSU.

Exactly half the men playing football were going pro, and everyone looked amazing.

This wasn’t just any Saturday night in the Vaught.

Eli Manning’s final year as Ole Miss’ quarterback was prolific. He racked up 3,600 total yards on 275 completions for 29 touchdowns. His completion percentage hovered in the low 60s for the entire season. He averaged 277 passing yards per game, with an 8.4 yards per attempt rate.

The most remarkable fact about 2003’s Ole Miss roster was that it featured 15 seniors in the starting 22, including Eli. Von Hutchins was Manning’s opposite on the defense, also a senior, and a shutdown DB that had to that point stolen three interceptions on the season. The Ole Miss secondary tore off three INTs from Matt Mauck on the day in question, with Hutchins himself nabbing the first.

We shan’t also forget that Mauck helmed a strong, if nascent, Saban Offense, and that Muschamp’s defensive unit was the best in the country, both on paper and in person. Saban, Muschamp and Fisher all hold lucrative, throned coaching seats in the SEC right now, 15 years after the fact.

This game is a college football time capsule.

The final score was 17-14, but the game was sloppier than that would indicate.

Ole Miss DB Travis Johnson opened the day’s scoring with a pick-six less than two minutes into the proceedings. That was the first of the game’s four collective turnovers. The score was 10-7 in LSU’s favor at halftime — three scoring plays across 30 minutes of game time. If you like college football defense, this game is for you.

Ole Miss had negative two rushing yards as late as the fourth-quarter break, in fact. The punting was absolutely superb, however, with LSU’s Donnie Jones and Ole Miss’ Cody Ridgeway both averaging in the neighborhood of 50 yards per punt on seven kicks apiece. It’s difficult not to laugh at Verne Lundquist’s audible glee at how impressively both teams’ punters were booting.

Perhaps never has a major college football event been so decided by plain field position and punting.

Here’s how it all went down.

The Rebels’ offense stalled on its first drive. That ushered in the first appearance of the Ole Miss defense, a group that, to put it mildly, had some* struggles in 2003.

*Many

Who can forget giving up 44 points to Memphis in a David Cutcliffe masterpiece loss, and we’ll always have that time they gave up 49 points, at home, to Texas Tech, letting B.J. Symons throw for 661 yards and six touchdowns. While they improved during the season, when the defense took the field against LSU, the hope was that they could stay afloat and give Eli and friends enough support that something like 35 points wouldn’t be needed to win the game.

In the face of those concerns, they opened the game like this:

If you were in the stadium that day, you can testify that right then and there all Ole Miss fans thought the Rebels were about to win 56-0 and everyone is taking home the very bleachers we were sitting on as a souvenir. Unfortunately, reality is a CRUEL SON OF A BITCH.

After LSU got the lights on its side of the scoreboard working with a field goal on the next possession, the teams settled into a period of throwing rocks at each another. A second Matt Mauck interception set up Ole Miss with good field position in quarter number two, but the Rebels were forced to settle for a missed field goal (WOULD THAT BE A PROBLEM LATER?).

With just under three minutes before halftime, Mauck hit Michael Clayton for a nine-yard touchdown, giving the Tigers a 10-7 lead. The third quarter was mostly a tribute to the rock fight portion of the first half, with neither team having any success on offense.

However, on the last play of the third quarter, LSU reached its 47-yard line, looking like they had something going. When the 12-minute CBS commercial break ended, the Tigers did indeed have something going.

A delicious blend of two rushers running into each other and a miscommunication in the secondary. It’s safe to assume most of us have not been physically stabbed in the heart (unless you are involved in an underground knife-fighting circuit), but that play felt like the real thing.

Amazingly, Ole Miss didn’t engage full meltdown mode. On the next possession, Manning found Bill Flowers for 43 yards on a third and 14. Four plays later on third and goal, Manning dunked on an LSU blitz that didn’t account for Brandon Jacobs.

Your thoughts, Coach Boom?

LSU, somewhat rattled, coughed up a three and out, giving the ball back to an Ole Miss offense that suddenly had life. Manning, who hit Flowers again for another big gain, drove the offense to the LSU 18, which set up a game-tying field goal attempt for some kicker who apparently won an award for kicking that year.

But first, a message from 2003:

And now back to the STAB US IN THE HEART AGAIN portion of the game.

However, because this is Ole Miss we’re talking about, THERE’S ALWAYS TIME FOR MORE PAIN.

... And then Eli tripped.

After getting the ball back with just over two minutes left, Ole Miss had one final chance. Eli threw incomplete passes on the first three downs, creating a fourth down that had to be converted.

He had 10 yards to gain.

LSU rushed eight initially (two dropped off), leaving the three Ole Miss wide receivers in man coverage. One of those matchups was Chris Collins, Ole Miss’ best wide receiver, in the slot against a safety.

If Manning had any time, that’s a first down. Alas, GIVE US THE THIRD KNIFE TO THE HEART.

That was it. That was the win and Atlanta. Fifteen years later and the haunting continues.