Independence Bowl: Miss. 27, Nebraska 23

Dec. 27, 2002 at 11:04 PM
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SHREVEPORT, La., Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Eli Manning became Mississippi's all-time career passing leader Friday night as the Rebels ended the Nebraska Cornhuskers' NCAA-record streak of 40 consecutive winning seasons with a 27-23 victory in the Independence Bowl.

"We didn't start the game in a good situation, taking over at our own one-yard line," said Manning, whose team trailed, 17-7, late in the first half. "You don't want your first play to be a quarterback sneak. It took us a while to settle down, but we came out fighting. Eventually, we got a handle on their blitzes and pressure."

The loss saddled Nebraska (7-7) with its first non-winning campaign since going 3-6-1 in 1961, snapping one of the great streaks in sports history. The seven losses are the most for the Cornhuskers since they went 3-7 in 1958.

Nebraska is just 7-9 in its last 16 games, having ended the 2001 season with losses to Colorado and Miami. The Cornhuskers ended this season with their first three-game losing streak in 41 years.

Many of the Cornhuskers' faithful jumped off the bangwagon long before Friday's game. Nebraska officials estimated that about 6,000 fans made the trip to Shreveport, a far cry from the rabid support the Cornhuskers usually receive.

"These kids have a great work ethic and will do what it takes to get better," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "We have a strong nucleus of kids coming back next season."

Possibly making his final appearance for Ole Miss, Manning completed 25 of 44 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown. He ended his junior year with 6,519 yards, surpassing Romaro Miller's previous school mark of 6,311 yards, set from 1997-2000.

Manning has indicated he will take some time off to consider entering the NFL draft a year early.

"Eli is a tremendous quarterback," Nebraska defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "He does some amazing things even when he is pressured. He sits in the pocket very nicely. We got to him early, but they did a nice job of picking up our stunts and blitzes in the second half."

Trailing, 24-20, Nebraska had a chance to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter when it reached the Rebels' eight. But the Cornhuskers had to settle for Josh Brown's 29-yard field goal with 7:50 left.

Defense was a huge problem for Nebraska throughout the season and the Cornhuskers could not stop the Rebels with the game on the line.

Mississippi chewed nearly three minutes off the clock on its next possession as Manning completed pases of 18 yards to Kerry Johnson and 32 yards to Chris Collins to set up Jonathan Nichols' 46-yard field goal with 4:39 to go.

After an exchange of punts, Nebraska got a final possession at its own 20 with 31 seconds left. But the Cornhuskers gained just 16 yards before time expired.

The 40-year streak officially ended when cornerback Travis Johnson intercepted Jammal Lord inside the Rebels' 20 on the final play of the game.

Lord completed seven of 16 passes for 93 yards with a pair of interceptions. Dahrran Diedrick paced the Cornhuskers on the ground with 92 yards on 13 carries.

Nebraska gained 262 yards in the first half, but Mississippi made adjustments at intermission and held the Cornhuskers to 97 yards over the final 30 minutes, including 60 yards on the ground.

"In the third quarter, I could tell they weren't as physical running the football and I knew we had a chance to get the upper hand," Rebels linebacker Eddie Strong said. "We were able to get into several third-and-lond situations, which is not their preference."

Nebraska kept alive one streak by making its 34th consecutive bowl appearance, but its string of 33 nine-win seasons ended Nov. 29 in a 28-13 loss to Colorado. Following that game, Solich shook up his staff by firing three defensive assistants.

The Cornhuskers opened a 17-7 lead when DeJaun Groce scored on a 60-yard punt return with 3:43 left in the first half. Groce tied an NCAA record with his fourth punt return for a score this year.

But the Rebels needed just 71 seconds to march 88 yards, closing within three points at halftime on Toward Sanford's one-yard dive.

After trading field goals in the first eight minutes of the third quarter, the Rebels took the lead for good on Sanford's second one-yard plunge with 3:24 left in the period.

A curious call set up the go-ahead score as Nebraska elected to attempt a fake punt on fourth and 12 from its 36. But upback Judd Davies threw an incomplete pass.

"The fake punt was a big play," Mississippi coach David Cutliffe said. "I know coach Solich thought it was a good gamble and fortunately, the luck went our way."

Manning tossed a 17-yard completion to Bill Flowers before an interference penalty gave Mississippi first and goal at the three. Sanford scored two plays later.

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