Cutcliffe has Rebels playing like vintage Vols

Updated: October 27, 2003, 5:38 PM ET

OXFORD, Miss. -- Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe has been criticized at times for trying to play Tennessee-style football with Ole Miss-level talent.

These days, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator has the 20th-ranked Rebels in first-place in the SEC West and looking more like the vintage Vols than the guys in Knoxville.

The offensive line is knocking people off the ball and the running backs are breaking tackles. The quarterback, who happens to be named Manning, is working the play-action passes for big gains.

With a good mix of running and passing, Mississippi (6-2, 4-0) has the No. 1 offense in the Southeastern Conference.

"We can be a lot of different things," Cutcliffe said. "This team fits what we're doing extremely well."

Cutcliffe has never hidden his desire to have a run-first offense. Even when he's had a Manning at quarterback -- whether it be Eli now or Peyton at Tennessee -- Cutcliffe's offenses have been balanced and somewhat vanilla.

At Tennessee during the late 1990s, Cutcliffe had a steady stream of NFL-caliber linemen and running backs he could use to establish the run.

The Volunteers went 63-11 from 1993 to their national championship season in 1998 with Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator.

But the high school all-Americans don't flow into Oxford like they do Knoxville. At Ole Miss, you need to be creative and a little tricky, right?

"I understand the concept. I think you have to give the concept some thought," Cutcliffe said Monday. "First of all, you teach what you know. You teach what you believe in. What people don't realize is this offense through the years has been somewhat of a chameleon. What we do is evaluate what we have available to us."

When Eli Manning became the starting quarterback two years ago, many Ole Miss fans expected Cutcliffe to go pass happy.

He kept it balanced.

Even last year when Ole Miss had the worst running game in the SEC, the Rebels ran the ball 31 times per game and passed it 37.

With mostly the same blockers and runners coming back, Cutcliffe didn't change the plan this season, he changed the attitude.

"We went into spring drills and two-a-days with very tough practices as far as hitting is concerned," guard Marcus Johnson said. "Coach, I think he kind of wanted to instill that in our brains that we are going to be a much more physical team. Every football team wants to be known as a strong, physical team."

Ole Miss is averaging 171 yards rushing per game to go along with its conference-leading 299 yards passing. The Rebels have run the ball 314 times and passed it 283.

The new attitude has also spilled over to the defensive side of the ball.

The Rebels are stopping the run better than they have in years, allowing 87 yards per game to rank 13th in the nation.

"You have to change your mind-set to become more physical and play tougher," defensive tackle Jesse Mitchell said.

The Rebels won the battles in the trenches in wins over Alabama and Arkansas the last two week, teams that in recent years have routinely worked them over up front.

South Carolina will present a similar challenge Saturday before Ole Miss faces its toughest tests -- Auburn and LSU.

"As coaches what we're striving to do -- on both sides of the ball -- is find those guys that can help you dominate a game offensively, defensively up front," Cutcliffe said. "That's always a challenge, but if you're going to win consistently in this league that's what you try to get to."

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