For one brief moment last Saturday, Ole Miss and LSU came together in peace and harmony. It occurred in an oak-shaded spot in The Grove, Oxford's famed pregame party spot, under a royal-blue tailgate tent, between mouthfuls of fried chicken and Bloody Marys. Mike Hillman, LSU's starting quarterback in 1968 and '69, tapped the shoulder of Archie Manning, the Ole Miss signal-caller from 1968 to '70 and father of Rebels starter Eli. "I sure hope your boy wins the Heisman," said Hillman, shaking his old rival's hand. "But LSU had better win this game."
Every one of the 62,552 fans attending the 92nd meeting of these cross-border rivals had a reason why his or her team deserved to win the biggest game between the schools in more than 30 years. "All of us have grown up in our opponent's backyard," says Doug Moreau, an All-America end for LSU in 1965. For Hillman, the reason his side deserved to win had to do with the two losses he suffered at the hands of Ole Miss as a starter. ("By three points both times," said Hillman glumly. "Archie was as slippery as a dadgum snake.") For 94-year-old John Vaught, it had to do with the eight times LSU had gotten the better of him during his 190-61-12 coaching run in 25 seasons with the Rebels. "LSU has rained on our parade," the old coach said over the loudspeaker minutes before kickoff in the stadium that bears his name. "It's time to put an end to our decades of frustration!"
Unfortunately for Hillman and the rest of the Ole Miss faithful, their parade got rained on again. Jonathan Nichols, one of the best place-kickers in the country, missed his two field goal attempts, the second a 36-yarder that would have tied the game with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then, with just under two minutes remaining and the Rebels down by three, Eli Manning took a snap on fourth-and-10, stepped back to throw and tripped after tangling feet with his center. The magic that had propelled Ole Miss to a 6-0 conference record in mid-November disappeared amid a swarm of Tigers linemen.
It was LSU that looked like the team of destiny on Saturday. Its defense, the stingiest in the nation, stifled the SEC's best offense with the same blitzes that had earlier shut down Georgia and Auburn. Junior quarterback Matt Mauck showed fortitude after throwing three interceptions, hitting Devery Henderson on a 53-yard scoring pass early in the fourth quarter to put the Tigers up 17-7. LSU now stands third in the BCS rankings, just 2.15 points behind USC. There's a chance that wins over Arkansas this weekend and in the SEC title game on Dec. 6 could give the Tigers a big enough strength-of-schedule boost to move them ahead of USC for a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
An LSU loss to Arkansas would keep Ole Miss's SEC West title hopes alive. That was small consolation to Archie Manning, whose youngest son was playing his final college home game. In his usual seat at the 50-yard line, the Ole Miss legend experienced the game as a father: clutching the hand of wife Olivia after Eli tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to pull the Rebels to within three points with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter, then smiling bittersweetly after his son's final snap.
Later, Archie gave the dejected Eli a hug, then did what any die-hard Rebel would do—looked forward to the next rival, Mississippi State. "Today just wasn't meant to be," said Archie. "But I know this: We're going to kick State's butt next week."