Limping to the finish
Slumping Ole Miss, Texas Tech battle in Independence
Posted: Wednesday December 30, 1998 06:22 PM
SHREVEPORT, Louisiana (AP) -- Mississippi's players and new coaches are still getting to know each other.
Less than a month after becoming head coach, David Cutcliffe makes his debut for Ole Miss (6-5) in the Independence Bowl against Texas Tech and Spike Dykes, whose coaching debut came 12 years ago in the same bowl with the same matchup.
"Coach Dykes had a little more advantage. He didn't have to put tape on players' helmets to learn names," Cutcliffe said. "He had been on staff there, and some of the staff stayed there.
"It has been interesting preparation, with a lot of things going on ... getting a staff put together, trying to get recruiting going in the right direction and preparing for this bowl game."
The preparation time is almost over. The Rebels play Texas Tech (7-4) on New Year's Eve, in a rematch of the 1986 Independence Bowl that Ole Miss won 20-17 to spoil Dykes' first game.
After strong starts, both teams faced difficulties late this season. But Texas Tech's problems were mainly on the field.
The Red Raiders started 6-0 for the first time since 1976, before losing four of their last five games by a total of 14 points. After a second-straight victory over Big 12 rival Texas, Tech ended its regular season with a 20-17 loss at Oklahoma.
"Coming off our last game, we are excited to have the chance to go back out and play," said senior Donnie Hart, Tech's leading receiver. "We had a bad taste in our mouths after the Oklahoma game. This gives us a chance to go out as winners."
Ole Miss hasn't won since a 37-31 overtime victory over LSU on Oct. 31. During a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, the Rebels were distracted by the rumors about coach Tommy Tuberville, who denied publicly and to his players that he was interested in another job.
Two days after the regular season finale, however, Tuberville validated the rumors when he was named Auburn's new coach.
The Rebels took little time finding Cutcliffe, the offensive coordinator for No. 1 Tennessee, which plays No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday night.
Instead of preparing for a national title game, Cutcliffe is trying to get through his first game as head coach -- with a game plan only good for one game and an inflammation of his pancreas that put him in the hospital over Christmas and still has him in pain.
"We have an Independence Bowl playbook, and we won't be able to use it beyond that," said Cutcliffe, who says his health is improving daily. "We'll change everything before we hit the field in spring practice as far as the terminology and the basic approach."
Cutcliffe opted to stick with what Ole Miss had been doing, rather than trying to overhaul the offense in only about a dozen practice sessions. That has meant players are teaching coaches what to do.
"It was difficult, but a whole lot easier for the few of us as coaches to learn," he said.
Things have been made more difficult by the status of Miller, the 2,273-yard passer who broke his collarbone on the final play of a 24-17 loss at Georgia on November 21, and Heard (40 catches, 559 yards), who injured his knee on a muddy practice field Monday.
Miller has practiced but has not taken a hit since the injury. He will play, but the decision on if he will start and how much he will play will not be made until just before kickoff.
While the Ole Miss offense is full of questions, Texas Tech counters with its own Ricky Williams -- not the Heisman winner -- and a balanced offense (202.7 yards passing and 201.7 yards rushing per game).
"When you have a great receiver in Donnie Hart and a great runner in Ricky Williams ... we want to utilize them both," said Tech quarterback Rob Peters. "We have been able to do that so far. That's our gameplan."
Williams, a third-team AP All-American and second-team Big 12 selection behind Texas' Williams, has rushed for 1,582 yards and a school-record 13 touchdowns. Hart has 48 catches for 871 yards and seven TDs.
"We really are a balanced team ... that is not necessarily by design as much as how it all worked out," Dykes said. "I don't know if I've ever been on a team that it's that close."