Little did the younger fans realize, as they sat in Mississippi's Vaught-Hemingway Stadium last Saturday night, cupping both hands around their open mouths, cheering on one play and gasping on the next, that Eli Manning was taking them back in time. This is how it was in his daddy's day. Except Daddy didn't work overtime.
Eli's father is Archie Manning, who was a scrambler and a gambler when he was Mississippi's quarterback more than 30 years ago. Archie led the Rebels to 22 wins and three bowl appearances in three seasons, but the two-time All-America is remembered most of all for his performance in a 33-32 loss at Alabama in 1969. That day he ran for three touchdowns, passed for two more, had an SEC-record 540 total yards and afterward was seen crying on the sideline by a national television audience.
Fans watching last Saturday's game in Oxford could also have felt empathy for Archie's youngest son, a sophomore quarterback who upheld the family's good name under extraordinary circumstances. Eli threw for 312 yards and six touchdowns, rallying his team to five second-half and overtime comebacks before Mississippi finally lost to Arkansas 58-56 in a game that lasted four hours and 14 minutes and went seven overtimes—the most in college history. The Razorbacks won thanks in large part to 6' 5" option quarterback Matt Jones, a freshman who replaced starter Zak Clark at the helm of the team's option attack late in the second half. From the fourth quarter on, Jones ran for 99 yards and threw for 61 more in leading Arkansas to 48 points.
As the game pitched back and forth, Eli handled the pressure differentiy than his father or older brother, former Tennessee quarterback Peyton, might have. He didn't go for Archie's razzle-dazzle improvisations or exhibit Peyton's high-strung persona. Instead the 6' 4", 205-pound Eli lingered in the pocket as if he were in an elevator waiting calmly for the doors to open. In personality Eli has less in common with Archie or Peyton than with his coolheaded mom, Olivia, who was the homecoming queen at Ole Miss when she fell in love with the All-America quarterback. Rather than shed tears after the defeat, Eli let go of his frustrations merely by tearing off the lucky rubber band he had been wearing around his throwing wrist during the Rebels' five-game winning streak, their longest in nine years.
The loss threatens to drop surprising Mississippi (6-2, 3-2 in the conference) out of the running in the SEC West, in which front-runner Auburn (6-2, 4-1) holds the tiebreaker edge over Ole Miss because of the Tigers' 27-21 victory over the Rebels on Sept. 8. Still, Ole Miss remains in contention for a fifth straight bowl, no small feat for a young team that was widely predicted to finish last in the division. The main reason for the turnabout is the spectacular performance of the 20-year-old Manning, who in his first season as a starter has thrown for a school-record 23 touchdowns (five more than the old single-season mark shared by his father) and only two interceptions. Against the Razorbacks, Eli nearly pulled off a game-winning fourth-quarter comeback for the third time this season.
On the whole, things have gone better in Oxford for Eli than Archie could have imagined. Given the meteoric rise of Peyton, who starred at Tennessee from 1994 through '97 and was taken as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, Archie worried that Mississippians would expect nothing less from Eli. "I was scared to death about him coming here," Archie says.
How could anyone hope to fulfill the Manning legacy at Ole Miss? The place is full of booby traps. The speed-limit signs on campus read 18 MPH, which by no coincidence is Archie's retired uniform number. Eli frequently does interviews in the athletic department's Manning Room, filled with memorabilia from Archie's heyday. Local television reporters ask Eli to pose in front of a portrait of his father, while he answers their questions.
"They even stand alike," says university chancellor Bob Khayat, a former Rebel who was a kicker for the Washington Redskins from 1960 through '63. "Eli's legs are slightly bowed, like his father's, and when I see him standing on the sideline with his hand on his hip, he looks just like Archie."
The comparisons with his father haven't bothered Eli (though he did decline an offer to bring Archie's number out of retirement, preferring to stick with the number 10). The legacy of Peyton was Eli's main concern while he was starring at Isadore Newman High in New Orleans and was choosing a college. Less than a year later, after Peyton had left Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, the Volunteers' offensive coordinator and Peyton's close friend, hoped to recruit Eli to Knoxville. However, everything Peyton had accomplished there was fresh in Eli's memory, and he didn't want that burden. "It would have been too much to deal with," he says, in explaining why in November 1998 he told Cutcliffe that he would not be attending Tennessee. (Eli was planning to sign with Texas or Virginia.)
Two weeks later Eli had another conversation with Cutcliffe, who called to say that he had been hired as the Ole Miss coach, replacing Tommy Tuberville, who had left for Auburn. To those who smell a conspiracy, Khayat says that he'd had his eye on Cutcliffe for years and that his hiring had nothing to do with any hopes of luring Eli to Oxford. All the same, Eli committed to Ole Miss within a fortnight. The visits he had made with his parents over the years made the campus feel like home, and he felt assured that Cutcliffe's pro-style offense would bring out the best in him.