Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss

Originally Published: December 11, 2003
By Football Scouts, Inc. | For ESPN Insider

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    Why to watch
    Ole Miss QB Eli Manning is this year's winner of the Maxwell Award given out by the Maxwell Football Club to the nation's top college player adding another chapter to the Manning family's excellence at quarterback. Much like his brother Peyton, Eli appears reserved at times but he appears to have become more of a vocal leader as the year has gone. This will be his last collegiate game and he will have the Rebels' offense fired up coming out of the locker room. Manning wasn't the only member of the Ole Miss squad to walk away with a national award this year, as Jonathan Nichols won the Lou Groza award given to the nation's top kicker. Nichols has been consistent and he has the leg strength to connect on some long-distance field goal attempts. The 1945 Cotton Bowl was Oklahoma State's first bowl appearance ever. The Cowboys are 10-4 in bowl games and they will be making their 11th bowl appearance since 1974. Third-year head coach Les Mile has led Oklahoma State to consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since the 1987 and 1998 seasons.

    Three key matchups
    1. Oklahoma State WR Rashaun Woods vs. Ole Miss DC Von Hutchins
    While Woods doesn't have the speed to get behind Hutchins, he has the leaping ability to elevate over him and he does a nice job of catching the ball at its highest point allowing him to win any jump balls downfield. Woods is also a crisp route runner that will set Hutchins up in one direction with his quick feet and then redirect creating separation underneath. He catches the ball in-stride allowing him to get upfield quickly and he has the elusiveness to turn the short gain into the big play. Hutchins must make sure to wrap him up quickly after the catch as a result. In addition, Hutchins' lack of size will cost him when he is able to stay with Woods in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Woods has the wide frame to shield Hutchins from the ball and the strong hands to make the tough catch in traffic making him an excellent red zone target.

    2. Ole Miss LOT Tre Stallings vs. Oklahoma State DE Greg Richmond
    Stallings has a significant size advantage over Richmond and enough lower body strength to drive him off the line but he'll struggle with Richmond's combination of burst and athletic ability. Richmond has the explosive first step to beat Stallings off the snap and he keeps his feet moving at all times making it difficult for Stallings to get into his frame. He is relentless in pursuit and he is fast enough to chase plays down from behind when Stallings fails to seal the backside. Although Stallings has good lateral mobility and the long arms to ride Richmond past the pocket, his lack of initial quickness gives Richmond the advantage when Ole Miss drops back to pass. Richmond is quick enough to prevent Stalling from getting his hands on him coming off the edge and he shows great closing speed. If Stalling starts to set up outside to compensate, Richmond, who almost always takes the shortest path to the quarterback, can shoot the inside gap.

    3. Oklahoma State FB Tim Burrough vs. Ole Miss MLB L.P. Spence
    Spence is rarely caught out of position and he has adequate range but he doesn't have the size or strength to hold his ground working against Burrough. Burrough explodes into his blocks and he will knock Spence back at the point of attack. He works hard to sustain his blocks after making initial contact and he has the lower body strength to drive Spence out of the hole when Oklahoma State runs between the tackles. Spence won't have much success beating Burrough to the outside either. Burrough is fast enough to prevent Spence from getting to the sideline and he has enough lateral mobility to block the moving target in the open field.

    Oklahoma State's keys
    1. Exploit Manning's weaknesses. Manning has the accuracy to lead his receivers underneath, he shows good touch on his passes downfield and he generally makes excellent decisions but he does have his weaknesses. His deeper passes sail at times, he lacks the mobility to buy time in the pocket and he will lock onto his primary receiver. Playing aggressive coverage with the corners forces Manning to throw downfield and hold onto the ball longer. The Cowboys can then use a safety that can read Manning's eyes to provide help over the top. The result should be some stalled drives and possibly interceptions.

    2. Wear down Rebels' undersized interior defensive line. Ole Miss lacks ideal bulk along the interior defensive line and it tends to wear down when teams consistently pound the ball inside over the course of the game. While RB Tatum Bell lacks great size, Oklahoma State's interior offensive line has the power to consistently open up holes inside. Once the defensive line tires Bell will have an easier time getting into the open field and he has the second gear to run away from defenses. Consistently running inside will also help keep the pass rush on its heels and give QB Josh Fields more time to find the open man when he drops back to pass.

    3. Protect the football. The Cowboys are giving up an average over 24 points a game and the Rebels have one of the most potent scoring offenses in the nation. As a result, Oklahoma State cannot afford to turn the ball over and give Manning any extra added opportunities. QB Josh Fields must make sound decisions under pressure and take what the defense gives him rather than forcing the ball to Woods downfield when it isn't there. Bell needs to secure the ball with both hands while running through traffic and he must make sure to carry it in the correct hand when he is running in the open field.

    Ole Miss' Keys to Success
    1. Screens and draws early. The Cowboys' defensive line excels at getting to opposing quarterbacks and it will be aggressive working against Manning but has a tendency to create quality running lanes by flying too far upfield and Ole Miss can take advantage by running screens and draws. RB Tremaine Turner is an adequate receiver out of the backfield that flashes some big-play ability after the catch and WR Chris Collins has the elusiveness to turn the short gain into the big play. Turner also has good vision and enough change of direction skills to locate any openings when he runs a draw. Executing these plays early in the game will help keep the defensive line off balance and give Manning more time to go through his progressions.

    2. Don't let Woods take this game over. Woods has 39 receptions more than any other player on Oklahoma State's roster and he appears to play his best in big games. The Rebels must force Fields to look for his other receivers by consistently giving Hutchins safety help over the top and occasionally linebacker help to the inside to take away any crossing routes. While this leaves the pass defense vulnerable in other areas, it forces the Cowboys' secondary receivers, which haven't played as big a role as Woods all year, to execute consistently. Ole Miss must also make sure to swarm to the ball and wrap Woods up, as he is extremely dangerous after the catch.

    3. Stay conservative and force Fields to throw into coverage. Fields handles pressure well and he is capable of exploiting the blitz for a big play but he doesn't have the arm strength to force the ball into tight spaces and he isn't much of a threat to run. The Rebels can take advantage by frequently dropping seven men into coverage. This will force Fields to throw into tighter spaces increasing the likelihood of generating a turnover. The key will be the ability of the defensive line to supply a pass rush and Ole Miss can help its front four by running some line stunts and twists that force Oklahoma State's offensive line to stay aware.

    War Room Advantage
    Oklahoma State   X X X X       X X
    Ole Miss X         X X X    

    War Room Edge
    Manning will have a strong final game and help Ole Miss keep this game relatively close but he lacks the supporting cast to get the win in his final collegiate performance. Bell will take advantage of good blocking in front of him and break some long runs that take pressure off Fields and the passing game. Woods will continue to beat any double coverage he faces and provide the big play downfield when the Cowboys need it. Defensively, Oklahoma State's front seven will limit Turner's production on the ground allowing the Cowboys to drop seven men into coverage. While Manning will take what the defense gives him and spread the ball around to his receivers, the coverage coupled with an effective pass rush from the defensive line will force him to hurry some throws. The result will be some incomplete passes and stalled drives.

    Prediction: Cowboys 31, Rebels 27