Thursday night, Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli watched as his former team, the No. 1-ranked Oregon Ducks, smoked UCLA 60-13 to move to 7-0.
Masoli watched a talented, veteran team, filled with his friends and filled with speedy playmakers, make play after dazzling play.
Here Saturday afternoon, Masoli endured a physical beating, two long lightning delays and a 38-24 defeat to Arkansas. Playing on a team that dropped to 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the SEC, Masoli operated behind a leaky, inexperienced line, often threw to freshman and sophomore receivers or handed off to young running backs. Yes, and Masoli probably played as well as he ever played in leading Oregon to the Rose Bowl and certainly as well as any Ole Miss quarterback has played since Eli Manning played out his eligibility.
Masoli ran for 98 yards on 15 carries. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. His 425 yards of total offense was the second highest single-game total in Ole Miss history behind only Archie Manning's magnificent 540-yard effort against Alabama 41 years ago.
Archie Manning lost that game, too, but everyone who saw it remembers his superb effort. Masoli lost this game, but we should all remember his heroic play. Even his gaudy numbers don't tell the entire story, because he often scrambled away from the fierce Razorbacks pass rush and threw while on the run. And when there was no running room, Masoli would just lower his head and push Arkansas tacklers backward.
Coming off two straight nine-victory, Cotton Bowl seasons, Ole Miss is off to a 3-4 start and Rebels fans are understandably disappointed. But any who still blame Masoli - or Houston Nutt for giving Masoli a second chance - just aren't paying attention. Presently, Jeremiah Masoli is an outstanding, experienced player on a mediocre, inexperienced team. Said Nutt, succinctly, "Jeremiah gives us a chance."Saturday afternoon, after all the weather delays and all the heckling from Arkansas fans, only one question left Nutt momentarily speechless: Where would you be without Masoli?
Nutt paused, whistled softly and shook his head. "Don't ask me that," he finally said.
Paying the price
We all know Masoli has made mistakes in his past. He is paying for those now. He should be the quarterback of those high-flying Ducks. He should be a Heisman Trophy candidate. It's his fault he is not. But say this for the guy: He is making the best he can of the situation. And he is making Ole Miss a competitive team, one that trailed 21-0 early, but fired back behind Masoli's remarkable play.
Through seven games, five starts, Masoli has thrown for 1,258 yards and run for 400 more. He has thrown 10 touchdowns, run for three. More than that, Nutt says, "He has been a great teammate and he has gone about everything the right way. Sometimes I want to pull him aside and ask him, 'Are you the same guy who got in trouble out there?' He's a winner. We couldn't ask any more of him."
Both Nutt and co-offensive coordinator Mike Markuson talked about how Masoli has become a team leader, trying to encourage his younger teammates. Said Markuson, "He's been there. He's won big games. He knows what it takes and he's trying to show the rest of them."
And what does he tell them?
"Just keep fighting," Masoli said. "That's all you can really tell them. There's only one way to get better and that's keep fighting. I thought we did keep fighting today, but to lose when you have so many opportunities, it's just frustrating."
He plays behind a line that included two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. He throws to mostly freshmen and sophomores.
"We don't have a lot of experience," he said. "That's not an excuse."
It's just a fact. So is this: Oregon starts mostly seniors.
"They look really, really good," Masoli said of his former team. "They are really clicking on offense. I wish them well. I hope they go all the way."
Meanwhile, Masoli intends to continue to make good on his second chance."Every new SEC stadium I play in, I soak it in," Masoli said. "I feel blessed."