- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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OXFORD, Miss. -- According to history, the Deep South likes its icons tragic. Robert E. Lee lost the war but won the battle for the hearts of his people. A century and change later, Archie Manning became Mississippi's favorite son because of what might have been. In his senior season of 1970, with Ole Miss 6-1 and the Heisman Trophy his for the taking, Manning suffered a broken arm in a victory over Houston. The Rebels lost their last three games, and Manning finished third in the voting, with Jim Plunkett the winner.
Fast-forward 33 years later. Archie's youngest son Eli, a senior and a quarterback, led Ole Miss to an 8-2 record and a No. 15 ranking going into Saturday. A victory over No. 3 LSU would have clinched the school's first SEC West championship, and given the Rebels a chance to play for their first conference title in 40 years.
A victory would have riveted the attention of every Heisman voter. Not to mention, it was the Last Manning's Last Home Game.
The Rebels trailed the Tigers 17-14 with 1:55 to play. Ole Miss had the ball on its own 32-yard-line, fourth-and-10. Eli Manning trotted from a sideline conference with coach David Cutcliffe and called the play. Manning crouched behind center. He took the snap, took two steps back -- and fell down.
In the delicate ballet of offensive line play, guard Doug Buckles took a step to his right and back, and tripped his quarterback. Manning sat up, arms on his knees, and shook his head in disbelief. The heads of 62,522 fans, a record crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, shook as well.
This was Game Seven ending on a pickoff, or Wimbledon being decided by a foot fault. In a backyard game, in a Thursday practice, in virtually any other situation, it might have been funny. With the goals of a season and a career riding on the play, in a game that for two weeks had been billed as the biggest ever played in 110 years of football in Oxford, anyone who laughed did so to keep from crying.
"You hate to lose a game on one play like that," Eli said afterward. "If you don't make the pass, that's one thing. Not to get a chance to make the play, that's what hurts."
Manning recalled tripping on his own lineman last year against Auburn. Offensive coordinator John Latina said, "It happens on Saturdays. It happens on Sundays. Unfortunately, it happened to us today. These things happen. You got guys making $1 million a year doing it."
Ole Miss got the ball back with 9 seconds to play on its own 18, but Manning's Hail Mary was batted away at midfield.
Manning's trip may have been the last strange play Ole Miss made Saturday, but it wasn't the only one. Kicker Jonathan Nichols, who led the nation in field goals (23-of-24) and field goal percentage (.958), missed game-tying kicks from 47 yards in the second quarter and 36 in the fourth, with 4:15 to play.
In the second quarter, wide receiver Chris Collins, alone on the right sideline after a LSU cornerback fell down, caught a long pass near midfield. Collins went to cut inside, and planted his right foot ever so slightly on the white paint. He kept running to the Tiger 3-yard-line, but the ball came back, and Ole Miss stalled.
Manning hit a couple of other long passes to Bill Flowers in the fourth quarter, but mostly LSU harassed him and his receivers. Manning completed 16-of-36 passes, threw one interception and one touchdown.
LSU, which entered the game in the top five nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring defense, frustrated the best offense in the SEC. The Tigers limited Ole Miss to 200 passing yards and 227 total yards, stuffing the Rebels from the opening kick.
Ole Miss had scored on its first possession in eight consecutive games. When the Tigers limited the Rebels to one first down and forced a punt, Ole Miss instead scored on LSU's first possession -- in fact, on the first play.
Tigers quarterback Matt Mauck, from his own 7, rolled right, and threw the ball right into the hands of Ole Miss cornerback Travis Johnson, who trotted in six yards for a touchdown. Mauck threw two more interceptions, but the defense kept Ole Miss from converting any of them into points. The Tigers played so well that they pleased even Nick Saban, a coach as demanding as a drill sergeant with a migraine.
"Our defense," Saban said, "played like gangbusters."
The missed opportunities stayed with Manning. He criticized himself time and again after the game.
"I didn't play as well as I wanted to," he said. "We had a good plan. To go out and play when I just couldn't get in sync, I don't know whether it was the off week or what. I wish I knew why. That's the thing that's bothering me."
Since Ole Miss beat Auburn, 24-20, on Nov. 8, the anticipation of the game against LSU had been building. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when these teams won four national championships in a span of six seasons, this rivalry captured the nation. For the last two weeks, it captured this quintessential southern college town.
By Friday night, the Square in downtown Oxford went into full buzz. At the Downtown Grill, hard on the Square, the patrons of one of the region's best restaurants periodically interrupted their fried green tomato appetizers and their sautéed redfish entrees to perform their Hotty Toddy yell:
Are you ready?
One, Two Three!
Who the Hell are We?
Flim Flam! Bim Bam!
Ole Miss By Damn!
That cheer can be heard early and often on football weekends in Oxford. Before the game, Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe appeared on the stadium big screen to lead Hotty Toddy. At halftime, astronaut Mike Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri led the cheer from the International Space Station. Ah, the powers of videotape.
By midnight Friday, the police on the street stood between the Ole Miss fans and the LSU fans. Soon after, campus police opened the Grove, the center of campus, to tailgaters. On most Saturdays, fans may enter the Grove to set up tents at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. For the LSU game, by 1 a.m., the Grove had filled, and the tents spilled over into adjacent open spaces.
"I've never seen it like this," Archie Manning said, standing beneath the larger of his two tents, shortly after noon Saturday. You kept hearing that 20,000 people would be in the Grove -- at kickoff. As he spoke, Eli and the team were taking the Walk of Champions through the Grove on the way to the stadium.
Archie doesn't normally go see the Walk because pretty soon Ole Miss fans approach him with footballs to sign. A few minutes later, a three-year-old wearing a No. 10 jersey, Eli's number, held his mama's hand in one hand and an Ole Miss football in the other.
The mother asked for an autograph.
"He's three years old and he loves football," the mother said.
As Archie signed, he said, "I went outside this morning and some kids were playing four-on-four. Seven of them had on No. 10 jerseys."
They love Eli as they loved Archie, which is what made Saturday's finish so heartwrenching. Great defenses do to quarterbacks what LSU did to Manning on Saturday. In the first three quarters, Ole Miss never set foot inside the LSU 29.
"Everybody said it was all about Eli," said cornerback Corey Webster, who bailed out Mauck in the third quarter. After Mauck threw his third interception and gave Ole Miss the ball at the Tigers 31, Webster picked off Manning two plays later at the LSU 16. "Everybody said he could win the Heisman off of us. We weren't going to let that happen."
Saban uttered the cliché, "I almost feel it is a shame anybody had to lose," and in this case, he wasn't paying an empty compliment. LSU can clinch the West title by defeating Arkansas next Friday. An LSU loss, combined with an Ole Miss victory at Mississippi State on Thursday, will send the Rebels (8-3, 6-1) to the championship game. But Ole Miss no longer controls its own destiny. They had hoped for a trip to Atlanta. Instead, they got Eli's trip, which will be remembered for years. That's the way it is with icons in Mississippi.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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