New Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe spent Christmas in the hospital with an inflamed pancreas and was still learning the names of his players and their offense this week.
The game plan for Thursday night's Independence Bowl mixed Ole Miss' regular offense with a few twists Cutcliffe brought with him from Tennessee, where he was offensive coordinator for the team that will be play for the national title on Monday.
Cutcliffe and Ole Miss overcame all those problems Thursday night, beating Texas Tech 35-18 to make him a winner in his coaching debut.
"I am not tired ... not a bone in my body," Cutcliffe said. "Being the underdog sometimes works in your advantage. We had a plan from the very first meeting ... and we stuck with that plan.
"I said a lot of prayers in the last three weeks. But tonight I'm going to say a prayer of thanksgiving for this opportunity. The good Lord has really guided me into a good spot."
Cutcliffe, still in pain and about 20 pounds lighter than when he was hired Dec. 2, became the first Ole Miss coach in 20 years to win his first game. And he did it with a squad with just six seniors.
Romaro Miller, a sophomore seeing his first action since breaking his collarbone Nov. 21, threw an Independence Bowl-record three touchdown passes, the last a 26-yarder to Cory Peterson with 8:22 left in the game. Miller was 14-of-23 for 216 yards and was the game's offensive MVP.
"It's OK, it felt good to me," Miller said of his arm. "All week I have been throwing without it hurting. It showed tonight."
And Miller was already looking ahead to next season, when Cutcliffe will have his offensive system installed.
"We can come back and do it better next year," Miller said.
Ole Miss (7-5) clinched the ame 30 seconds after Miller's third TD when Anthony Magee intercepted Matt Tittle's pass and returned it to the Texas Tech 31. Eight plays later, Deuce McAllister scored on a 4-yard run.
Texas Tech (7-5) got its last score on Kevin McCullar's 14-yard fumble return in the final minute, but Ole Miss responded immediately on McAllister's 43-yard return of an onside kick.
| Deuce McAllister, who scores three touchdowns in the Rebels' triumph, leaves Texas Tech defenders in his wake en route to the end zone. (AP) |
Ole Miss' first victory since Oct. 31 came less than a month after Cutcliffe was hired to replace Tommy Tuberville, who went to Auburn after publicly denying for weeks he was interested in another job.
The Rebels wasted no time in hiring Cutcliffe, who had spent 16 years as a Tennessee assistant.
Despite working a series of 18-hour days that attributed to his inflamed pancreas, there was not enough time for a total overhaul of the offense. About a dozen prebowl workouts weren't enough, either.
Instead, the coaches were forced to learn what the Rebels had done all season. And the players responded with a 355-yard effort against Tech, which was ranked eighth nationally in total defense (285 yards per game).
After starting 6-0 for the first time since 1976, Texas Tech lost five of its last six games and dropped to 5-17-1 in bowl games. The four regular-season losses were by a combined 14 points.
It was only the second meeting between the teams and a rematch of the 1986 Independence Bowl that Ole Miss won 20-17, coincidentally in the coaching debut of Tech coach Spike Dykes.
Miller broke his right collarbone on the final play of a 24-17 loss at Georgia. He had not taken a hit since, but showed early Thursday night that would not be a problem.
After being tackled hard on the third play by All-American defensive end Montae Reagor, who was called for a late hit, Miller got up. Three plays later, he overthrew a receiver with a ball that went almost 50 yards in the air.
Reagor wasn't heard from much the rest of the night. After 96 tackles and seven quarterback sacks during the regular season, Reagor was held to just four tackles (only one solo) in his last game for the Red Raiders.
"Miller did a great job coming back from his injury. ... He got in a comfort zone and was very poised," Reagor said.
Miller threw several long passes, including one that flew almost 65 yards - well past the intended receiver and two defensive backs who fell down after they collided.
When Ole Miss drove 75 yards in 11 plays to take a 14-7 lead, it was McAllister doing most of the work. He had eight carries for 32 yards and turned a short swing pass fro Miller into a 32-yard TD with 6:04 left in the second quarter.
McAllister, who this season became only the second 1,000-yard rusher in Ole Miss history, finished with 79 yards on 27 carries.
Miller's fumble midway through the first quarter, after being hit by Kris Kocurek, led to Texas Tech's 7-0 lead. Three plays after Ty Ardoin's recovery at the Ole Miss 25, Rob Peters threw a 22-yard TD to Derek Dorris.
Peters, the starter, was 5-of-11 passing for 69 yards. Tittle was 11-of-19 for 134 yards with two interceptions.
Ricky Williams, the other great running back from a Texas school but not the Heisman Trophy winner, was limited to 85 yards on 23 carries after running for 1,582 yards during the regular season.
Ole Miss got even when Miller hit Ken Lucas for a 33-yard TD. Lucas, who caught just two passes during the regular season while primarily playing defensive back, made the catch after working around defensive back Darwin Brown at the goalline.
The tying touchdown with 1:18 left in the first quarter came on the first play after a 29-yard punt. The Red Raiders had been pushed back after Kendrick Clancy's third-down sack of Peters.
Texas Tech got within 14-10 when Chris Birkholz kicked a 49-yard field goal with 2:18 left in the first half. The kick, a line drive that barely cleared the crossbar, was the longest by the Red Raiders in 23 postseason games.
Steve Sloan won in his Ole Miss debut in 1978, but Billy Brewer (1983), Joe Lee Dunn (1994) and Tuberville (1995) all lost their openers.
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved