GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—The great Ron Zook experiment at Florida endured another harsh blow, this time from Mississippi and Eli Manning, who finally got his family into the win column at The Swamp.
Manning directed a late 50-yard touchdown drive to lift the Rebels to a 20-17 victory over the 24th-ranked Gators on Saturday. It gave the Manning family the win at Florida that Eli’s older brother, Peyton, could never get, while dropping Zook to 11-8 since he replaced Steve Spurrier as Florida’s coach at the start of last season.
With his father, former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning, watching from the stands, Eli finished 17-for-29 for 262 yards.
“He claimed after Peyton left that he’d never come back to Gainesville or The Swamp,” Eli said. “So, he had one last trip and he got to end it on a good one.”
The Gators (3-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) lost consecutive games at The Swamp for the first time since 1988-89, and a once-storied program was shut out in the second half for the second straight year by Ole Miss (3-2, 2-0).
The Rebels, who beat Florida 17-14 last season in Oxford, came into this game with the nation’s worst pass defense. But it was good enough to beat Florida, which fell to .500 at the latest point in the season since finishing 6-6 in 1987.
“We’re embarrassed,” said tailback Ran Carthon, who called a player’s-only meeting for Monday. “We’re 3-3 and no one knows what that feels like around here.”
Barring a highly unlikely meeting in the SEC title game this year, Eli will finish his college career 2-0 against the Gators. At Tennessee, Peyton went 0-3 as a starter against the Gators—0-2 at The Swamp.
“I didn’t say anything after the first win,” Eli said. “I might say a little something to him this week.”
While Eli Manning was efficient, it was the Ole Miss running backs and defenders who really stole the show.
Vashon Pearson nudged over from 1 yard with 1:10 left to give the Rebels the winning score. Pearson finished with 48 yards, Ronald McClendon had 107, including a 52-yard touchdown, and Ole Miss ran for 223 total yards against a Florida defense that was missing its best linebacker, freshman Channing Crowder.
“I’d rather be managing the running game than running around the pocket and trying to avoid safeties and cornerbacks,” Manning said.
Florida’s final drive was halted when Eric Oliver intercepted Chris Leak. It was the freshman quarterback’s third pick of the game—all in the fourth quarter.
“There are going to be games like this when I’m going to be struggling,” Leak said.
It figured the Gators would try to go after an Ole Miss pass defense that allowed 661 yards last week against Texas Tech. But the attacks came only sporadically. Leak finished 14-for-27 for 234 yards, and while the Gators did look downfield more than they had earlier this season, they also seemed determined to run and win with defense. Carthon led Florida with 108 yards rushing.
“Just because their stats aren’t very good against the pass doesn’t mean they’re not going to practice and get better,” Zook said. “We didn’t go out and execute the way we needed to. But we wanted to run the football.”
The close-to-the-vest plan helped Florida to a 17-13 lead to start the fourth quarter. Its first two drives of the quarter ended with interceptions, one by Von Hutchins and another by Travis Blanchard. After each pick, plus another Florida drive that went three-and-out, Ole Miss got the ball back at midfield.
The tiring Florida defense held the first two times, but finally, Ole Miss came through. Manning was patient and precise—managing the clock, hitting Chris Collins for gains of 8 and 12 yards, and handing off to Pearson a whole bunch. The result was an 8-play, 50-yard touchdown drive that ate up four minutes.
“This is very embarrassing,” Florida defensive end Bobby McCray said. “If you don’t hurt deep down inside, you don’t love the game of football.”
The Rebels sure are loving it. They’re tied for first in the SEC West. After a Homecoming game against Arkansas State, they have three straight conference games at home, against Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina.
Manning’s Heisman Trophy candidacy certainly didn’t take a hit, and even though Florida isn’t what it used to be, Ole Miss certainly had reason to feel good, especially after last week’s 49-45 loss to Texas Tech.
“It’s great to have this kind of victory,” receiver Bill Flowers said. “It’s more of a moral victory for us. We got our confidence back, especially the defensive backs.”
Zook is already telling his players that they still have an outside shot at the SEC East title. More urgently, though, they have to think about becoming bowl eligible. Only two of their victories are against Division I-A teams, and their next three games are at No. 6 LSU next week, at No. 8 Arkansas and against No. 11 Georgia in Jacksonville.
“No one’s going to give us a chance next week,” Carthon said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re 28-point underdogs.”