RICK CLEVELAND: A single play can be difference between winning and losing




We are three weeks into the college football season – two weeks into the NFL – and already we have a stark reminder:

Oh, what a difference one play can make.

For the New Orleans Saints, it’s happened two straight weeks. In their opener, rookie Kenny Vaccaro got a fingertip on what otherwise would have been a game-winning pass and preserved a 23-17 Saints’ victory over Atlanta. In Week 2, Garrett Hartley’s last-play, 27-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, giving New Orleans a 16-14 victory on the road over Tampa Bay.

Change one play and the Saints are 1-1. Change two plays and they are 0-2. As it stands now, Saints Nation is proud and cocky, walking around with the stride and posture of, say, Sean Payton. Change two plays, Saints Nation is ready to leap, hands-tied, off a Mississippi River bridge.

It happens in college football, too:

• In Week 1, Jeff Scott, the tiny-yet-bullet-like Ole Miss running back, broke loose on a 75-yard run with a minute to play that gave the Rebels a scintillating 39-35 victory over Vanderbilt and thus built upon the enthusiasm of Hugh Freeze’s first season at the Rebel helm. If Scott doesn’t make that play, think how much different Ole Miss fortunes would have been.

For that matter, think how much differently Vandy fans might feel today.

• In Week 3, Auburn drove against the clock and Mississippi State for a late touchdown and a 24-20 victory. But if Nick Marshall’s 11-yard pass to C.J. Uzomah goes off his hands, or the official rules Uzomah stepped out of bounds instead of being pushed out of bounds, how much different would State’s season look? The Bulldogs would be 2-1 and 1-0 in the SEC instead of 1-2 and 0-1.

Change one play during the course of the game and the difference is so stark.

It’s the difference between victory and defeat, joy and despair, ecstasy and agony, and a whole lot more.

As Jackson State’s Hall of Fame coach W.C. Gorden once said so eloquently, “Victory makes your coffee sweeter, your food taste so much better. It makes your jazz sound smoother, the sun shine brighter. It makes your wife look more beautiful. It even makes you sleep better and dream sweeter. Victory makes all the difference in the world.”

One play – or one decision – can change lives. We have seen it many times in Mississippi.

Remember the Egg Bowl

Let’s go back to November of 2007. Ole Miss leads State by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter of the Egg Bowl at Starkville. The Rebels, game well in hand, have a fourth down and 1 yard to go at midfield.

I was standing with a Liberty Bowl official when then Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron kept his offense on the field.

“He’s just trying to pull them offsides,” the Liberty Bowl guy said.

“You obviously haven’t been watching Ole Miss this season,” I said.

The Rebels gave the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. State’s defense stopped him. And State came back from a 14-0 deficit to an improbable 17-14 win.

Before the day was done, Orgeron had lost his job. And State went on to win the Liberty Bowl.

Hugh Freeze was on that staff. Some may have forgotten he held things together for Ole Miss until Houston Nutt was hired. He then interviewed for the offensive coordinator’s job. Nutt picked Kent Austin and Freeze headed to Lambuth, where he enjoyed immense success as head coach, then to Arkansas State, where he again succeeded, which led to him replacing Nutt at Ole Miss. And we know where Freeze and Ole Miss are now – 3-0 following Saturday’s big win at Texas and ranked No. 21 in the nation.

Who knows what would have happened had Orgeron punted? One play. That’s all.

One play.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is executive director of the the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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