The final minutes were ticking away in Starkville on Nov. 29, 1997. Mississippi State led Ole Miss 14-7. Ole Miss center Matt Luke was on the sidelines, his shoulder pads off, having suffered a torn knee ligament earlier in the game.
Ole Miss, in its first year off NCAA sanctions, needed a victory to go to a bowl game.
Walker Jones, now an international marketing executive for Under Armour, was an Ole Miss linebacker and close friend of Luke’s. Jones remembers going to the sidelines and finding Luke putting his shoulder pads back on in case Ole Miss got the ball back.
“Matt wanted to play,” Jones said. “He wanted back in the game, and it was against the advice of our training staff. Heck, he could barely walk.”
The trainers didn’t say, “no,” and Tommy Tuberville, the Ole Miss coach wasn’t about to.
Ole Miss got the ball back and Luke took the field.
“I’ll never forget him dragging that bad leg,” Jones said.
So, all Luke had to do was block State nose tackle Eric Dotson in the two-minute offense on one leg, which would have been extremely difficult on two.
Luke did it well enough for Stewart Patridge to take the Rebels down the field for a touchdown and winning two-point conversion in an epic 15-14 victory that put Ole Miss in the Motor City Bowl, where the Rebels defeated Marshall.
“Dotson was a beast,” Jones said. “Matt blocked him except for one play.”
I went back and watched the tape on youtube.com. You can, too. Luke, limping noticeably, did block Dotson. Sometimes, inexplicably, Dotson dropped into pass coverage. Other times, a guard helped Luke with the task. A couple times, Luke did it by himself.
And then, on the two-point conversion, Dotson, grabbed Luke, slung him to the ground and went full-speed at Patridge. Luke, on the ground, slung his bad leg around and got a piece of Dotson – enough to stop his pass rush.
Should it have been a penalty? Well, yes. Was it called? No.
And Patridge – I had forgotten just how accurate he was – hit Cory Peterson for the winning points.
Jones, who is admittedly predjudiced, says that Egg Bowl sequence nearly 20 years ago epitomized Luke as a person and as a player and is an indicator of the kind of head coach he will be.
“Matt overcame a lot of adversity, including being under-sized because of how tough he was and how smart he was,” Jone said. “He was tough as nails and incredibly intelligent.”
Deuce McAllister, another of Luke’s Ole Miss teammates, agrees.
“Matt was not the biggest or strongest or quickest, but he beat you because of his smarts and his effort,” McAllister said. “He was a gritty, old-fashioned football player, a winner. His teammates respected him and rallied around him. He’ll be the same way as a coach. You look at his track record. He’s been coaching now almost 20 years and he’s had success everywhere he’s been. He’ll be fine.”
That may be, but Luke faces an unenviable task of taking over just a week or so before practice begins, six weeks before the season begins, with an NCAA cloud still hanging over the program. This would be a tough job for Knute Rockne.
But, said Jones, “A huge reason Matt is perfect for Ole Miss right now is that he’s been through this. When he signed, Ole Miss had two years ahead with no TV, no bowls and with few scholarships. He’s been there, done that. He’s gone against Alabama and Georgia and LSU when we only had 55 players on scholarship. He knows how it’s done because he’s done it.”