MAKING IT COUNT

Ole Miss' Sanford comes up with the big play when it matters most against Alabama

By Gregg Ellis

Daily Journal

OXFORD - Toward Sanford didn't disappoint the second time around, when it really counted the most.

Saturday, during pre-game warmups in preparations for Alabama, the Ole Miss fullback dropped a pass from quarterback Eli Manning on a flat route turned upfield.

Little did the two know at the time they would hook up again late in the game on the same play.

When they did the significance was stupendous.

With about a minute to play and the Rebels facing second-and-10 from the Tide 45, Manning dropped back to pass. As he was scrambling out of the pocket looking for the open receiver, Sanford realized his quarterback was under duress.

So the junior from Batesville turned his flat route upfield, just like he's been taught every day in practice. With Manning inching close to the line of scrimmage and facing a linebacker coming at full speed, he found Sanford open down the sidelines and at the last possible second lofted a floater to his fullback.

This time, though, Sanford held on for a 41-yard gain to the 4.

It set up the game-winning touchdown two plays later when Joe Gunn hauled in a 4-yard swing pass.

"It was by the grace of God I caught that pass," Sanford said with a sigh of relief. "It seemed like the ball hung in the air forever."

That play was one of many Sanford has made this year. Despite starting just two games, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound criminal justice major has scored seven touchdowns, the second most in the Southeastern Conference.

And most of his scores have come inside the opponent's 5-yard line.

"Toward is a talented young man," said Rebels coach David Cutcliffe, whose 4-1 team plays host to Middle Tennessee State 1 p.m. Saturday in a homecoming matchup.

"I've always thought he was really good with the ball in his hands. He's got great hands for catching the football, and he makes good decisions running the ball.

"He's bigger than people think he is, and he's got enough speed to make moves to make things happen in the open field. I also like the fact that he's blocking like a fullback."

Sanford saw limited action in the Rebels' first three games, mainly in short-yardage situations.

But his role began to change against Arkansas State, a game where he earned his first start.

Against the Indians and the Crimson Tide, his number was called regardless of the down and distance.

"I just do what I'm asked," he said. "If the coaches see a certain situation and feel it's my job to do, then I go out and do it.

"I'm a role player, but it's a role that is expanding."

Manning obviously has confidence in Sanford. He's thrown to him five times for 79 yards and one touchdown.

"All our running backs catch the ball well," Manning said. "I know if I throw to them out of the backfield, they are going to catch the ball.

"Toward just ran a great route. I threw it high and outside, and he did a great job of coming down with it. He's made big plays before."

And before the season is over, the odds are good he'll make even more.

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