Hugh Freeze, taking the Rebels to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons, is in his first season as head coach of the Rebels. Tommy Tuberville was in his third season, but it was his first Ole Miss team to go bowling.
Anybody paying attention to Ole Miss football the past couple of decades will remember the Battle for the Golden Egg that year when the Rebels drove 64 yards for the game-winning drive and a 15-14 victory that sent them bowling. Besides bragging rights and one of those forever talked about memorable victories over Mississippi State, the win vaulted the Rebels into the Ford Motor City Bowl in Detroit.
That bowl game was played 15 years ago tonight in the Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the Detroit Lions and a previous Super Bowl site. Ole Miss defeated Marshall the night after Christmas in 1997 in a thriller, with the Rebels coming out on top 34-31.
Back in that last regular season game, an Ole Miss team that had earlier won 36-21 at LSU scored with 25 seconds left against State on Stewart Patridge's 10-yard pass to Andre Rone. That play, which drew Ole Miss to within a point at 14-13, is almost forgotten because of the next one. It remains one of the most talked about ever in the Ole Miss-Mississippi State series.
Tuberville chose to go for two points and the win and not play for overtime. Cory Peterson ran what was called a "Z-drive," a short crossing pattern, and Patridge hit him with a pass right at the goal line. Peterson crossed the plane to forever live in Egg Bowl lore.
By most accounts it also knocked MSU out of a trip to Detroit and sent the Rebels north for Christmas. The Bulldogs would have been 8-3 had they won but sat home as Ole Miss went bowling for the first time in five seasons.
The Rebels had last been in a bowl game in 1992, a 13-0 win against Air Force in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, which capped a 9-3 season. But NCAA probation soon followed, and the rebuilding of the program by Tuberville and staff culminated with the win in Starkville, the victory in Motown, a final 8-4 record and top 25 ranking.
Marshall was in its first season of Division I-A football after years as a powerhouse in Division I-AA. In 1996, the Thundering Herd were national champions. In 1997, a 10-1 season sent the Mid-America Conference champions to Detroit to face Ole Miss. Chad Pennington was the Herd's quarterback, and his favorite target was Randy Moss. Both, especially Moss, would find success at the next level. Pennington officially retired as a player earlier this year, on Feb. 9, 2012, after a series of injuries and setbacks. Moss continues his NFL career, now with the 49ers.
There were others but you get the picture. Marshall was loaded, and the Rebels knew they had their hands full. Former Ole Miss assistant coach Bob Pruett was the MU head coach, while former Rebel player Jay Hopson was an assistant coach with Marshall. Former Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer's son, Gunter, was on the Herd coaching staff that season, and of course was on the Ole Miss staff last season.
There was plenty of incentive on both sides, but the Thundering Herd had a lot of insight to Ole Miss through those men.
The thriller of a game began with two touchdowns on the game's first three snaps. Patridge connected with current Ole Miss assistant coach Grant Heard on a long pass play to the Marshall 1-yard line. John Avery's touchdown plunge put Ole Miss up before fans had gotten settled into their seats. Steve Lindsey's extra point made it 7-0 Rebels.
As quickly as Ole Miss had scored, the Herd answered even more quickly. From his own 20 after the kickoff, Pennington hit Moss who raced 80 yards for a touchdown.
The game unfolded that way throughout, and in the second half alone there were five lead changes. Deuce McAllister's 1-yard rush for a touchdown with 31 seconds to go in the game gave Ole Miss the lead for good as current Ole Miss assistant coach Matt Luke helped the cause as an offensive lineman on that team. But Rebel linebacker Broc Kreitz had to strip the football from Moss on the game's final play or the outcome might have been different.
Ole Miss had started the season with a 24-23 overtime win against Central Florida in Oxford. Only a stumble by Golden Knights quarterback Daunte Culpepper falling short of the goal line on a two-point conversion try preserved the Ole Miss win that opening night.
It was the kind of moment the 1997 team is remembered for, the drama and the excitement that put life back into an Ole Miss football program that had temporarily lost it.
There are similarities between this year's Ole Miss team and that one. Both had excellent leadership from the players, a play-making quarterback that continued to improve as the season went on, and a team that had bought into what its coaches were teaching them.
The 1997 team had begun to add some depth after the probation years, and several of its number would later head to the NFL for successful careers.
This year's 6-6 team has talent but may lack the overall depth of the 1997 team. Recruiting under Freeze and the current staff is correcting that situation.
Both those teams won the fans back. It was a difficult time in the holiday season for Ole Miss fans to get to a bowl game as far away as Michigan on the night after Christmas. But by charter planes, buses, and vehicles, fans headed north to watch Ole Miss get back into the bowl business.
A week and a half from now, Ole Miss fans by their attendance will set a record for the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham at historic Legion Field. But 15 years ago tonight inside the Silverdome, the Rebels won as thrilling a bowl game as Ole Miss fans had ever seen.
A similar shootout with the 6-6 Pittsburgh Panthers could await that same fanbase on Jan. 5, 2013.