West Virginia 49, Mississippi 38

Sunday, December 31, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- West Virginia coach Don Nehlen went out a winner.

The Mountaineers carved up the Mississippi defense for three quarters, built a 49-9 lead and held on for a 49-38 victory in the Music City Bowl on Thursday.

It closed Nehlen's 21-year career in Morgantown on a high note, and ended one of his most exasperating streaks: The Mountaineers had lost eight straight bowl games.

"We're pleased as the devil to have won. We've had a long dry spell," Nehlen said. "If nothing else, the jokes will disappear in Morgantown for a while. This game was something."

It was especially something for Brad Lewis, who threw five touchdown passes. He had eight during the regular season.

"We knew coming in that Ole Miss played a lot of man-to-man and we knew that with Khori Ivy, Antonio Brown and our tight ends that they couldn't match up with our speed," Lewis said.
Nehlen has tried for a month to deflect attention from his impending retirement, but failed even with his players.

"Coach told us all week don't win for him, win for ourselves," said Brown, who had two touchdown catches. "But deep down in our hearts we knew we were going to win this for the coach."

Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe said Nehlen did more than just get his guys emotionally excited.

"I'm sure they played with great emotion, but they executed extremely well, about as well as any offensive team I've seen in quite some time," Cutcliffe said. "That's a tribute to Don Nehlen and his staff. Those guys were toned up and ready to go."

West Virginia's victory keeps the Big East Conference's record perfect against the Southeastern Conference in the three years of the bowl game.

West Virginia (7-5) dominated the first three quarters and built a 49-9 lead before the Rebels (7-5) rallied behind Eli Manning to make it respectable.

The Mississippi fans among the crowd of 47,119 who stayed until the end had to be heartened by the performance of Manning, the redshirt freshman son of Archie Manning and brother of Peyton Manning, who threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the first of his career.

But by then Lewis and the Mountaineers had gotten too far away.

Lewis was perfect in the first half, when he completed all seven of his passes for 216 yards and four touchdowns. He set up another score as West Virginia took a 35-9 halftime lead, and finished with 318 passing yards.

"I don't think we've ever had a quarterback with a better half," Nehlen said. "I've never seen our offense execute that way."

Any hopes the Rebels had of seizing momentum in the second half were damaged when Shawn Terry returned the second-half kickoff 99 yards to put West Virginia ahead 42-9, then all but destroyed when Lewis threw his fifth TD pass, covering 10 yards to Ivy, with nearly 10 minutes still left in the third quarter to make it 49-9.

Lewis' first TD pass covered 40 yards to fullback Wes Ours on the Mountaineers' opening possession, and Ivy made a nice one-handed stab for an 11-yard TD early in the second quarter.

Then Lewis hooked up with Brown on scoring throws of 35 and 60 yards. The touchdown passes to Brown came on drives of three plays and two plays that took a cumulative 52 seconds off the clock.

After Rick Sherrod intercepted Romero Miller's pass and returned it to the Ole Miss 29 later in the second quarter, Lewis hit Ivy for 25 yards to set up a short touchdown run by Ours and make it 35-9 at halftime.

Miller scored the Rebels' first touchdown on a 7-yard scramble in the third quarter to make it 49-16.

Manning took over for the fourth quarter and threw touchdown passes of 23 yards to Jamie Armstrong, 18 yards to Omar Rayford and 16 yards to Toward Sanford after freezing the Mountaineers with a nice fake on a fourth-and-1 play.

"I wasn't really expecting a comeback," Manning said. "I was just trying to score a couple of points."