Sykes' game-winner lost on this group of Bama-beaters
OXFORD - Ben Claxton's never heard of Shawn Sykes, but he knows Eli Manning very, very well.
True Ole Miss fans, unlike their team's starting junior center, fondly remember Sykes as the running back who scored two touchdowns in the Rebels' 22-12 win against Alabama in 1988.
"Shawn Sykes? Never heard of him," said Claxton, who was an 8-year-old living in Dublin, Ga., the day Ole Miss beat the Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the first time ever.
Until Saturday, that Sykes-led win was the Rebels' last against Alabama.
Claxton, a modern day warrior with few memories of past Ole Miss failures against Alabama, was on the drenched turf yesterday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when the Rebels, with Manning at the controls, defeated the Crimson Tide, 27-24, for the first time ever in Oxford.
Claxton was thrilled when he watched his talented sophomore leader fire the go-ahead touchdown pass to running back Joe Gunn.
The 3-yard scoring toss came with 46 seconds remaining and was Manning's third key completion in the Rebels' 59-yard final drive. His other crucial throws were for 24 yards to Jamie Armstrong on first-and-20 from the Ole Miss 31 following a holding call, and a 41-yard pass and run to fullback Toward Sanford, who carried the ball down to the Tide 4-yard line.
Earlier in the quarter, Manning directed a 72-yard, 6-play drive that cut Alabama's lead to 24-20.
"Eli played tremendous," a smiling Claxton said. "I'm so glad he's on our team."
The amazing Mr. Manning continued a family tradition of beating Bama with his performance against the Crimson Tide. He completed 22-of-41 passes for 325 yards and the winning TD.
His father, Archie, was 2-1 during his Rebel career, winning as a sophomore and senior, and losing the 33-32 thriller in Birmingham on national TV as a junior.
Hig older brother, Peyton, finished his Tennessee career by leading the Big Orange to a 3-1 record against the Tide.
For the Mannings, it's 6-2 against Alabama with two more to go.
When asked about this family's success against the Tide, the younger star just smiled.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "Give credit to all the players and the coaches."
One last chance
Manning thought he'd missed his chance at beating the Tide with 3 minutes, 47 seconds remaining when he overthrew a wide-open Omar Rayford in the end zone on a fourth-and-6 play at the Bama 8-yard line.
"I was upset," he said. "We called a good play. I had a guy open. I just missed him. It was tough. I was hoping for another shot."
Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe immediately met with his quarterback on the sideline, telling him to forget the play and start concentrating on the next series if the Rebels got the ball back.
"You can't worry about that one," Cutcliffe told Manning. "You worry about the next one."
Manning, who admits that he's pretty "laid back," was ready to score when the Rebels got the ball back with 1:34 remaining and his team trailing 24-20.
"I always think calm throughout a game," he said. "I don't get too up or too down."
The strategy on the final drive was hit receivers on the run. Cutcliffe told his quarterback to be "great with his eyes."
Manning had 20-20 vision.
First, he zipped a bullet to his senior catcher - Armstrong. On the 41-yard play to Sanford, Manning scrambled to his right and found his fullback all alone down the right sideline.
On the TD pass, Manning made the right read and hit Gunn flairing out of the backfield.
Claxton, who snapped the ball to Manning on every play, knew the winning six-pointer was coming.
"When Toward caught the ball I said to myself, We're going to win this thing,''' Claxton said.
He was right. Manning was true. The two, along with a team of battling Rebels, joined Shawn Sykes in Ole Miss lore.
Gene Phelps is sports editor for The Daily Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org