It felt like the mountain top.
LSU. The 2001 SEC Champions, playing in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. Two years ago, you never would have convinced me it could happen. Hell, you couldn't convince half of Baton Rouge of it through the first months of this season, either. But from what looked like a floundering 4-3 mark, the Tigers road the pitch-and-catch combination of Rohan Davey and Josh Reed to a five game winning streak that broke records, earned national honors and busted the BCS, taking home the university's first conference championship since 1986. And even that came thanks to the unlikely play of unknown backup quarterback Matt Mauck.
It's still one of the most enjoyable runs I can remember as a Tiger fan. As happy as we were to be there, we still felt like we belonged, and with big time talents like freshmen Michael Clayton and Ben Wilkerson and sophomores like Chad Lavalais and Devery Henderson, the future looked bright. I don't know that we had any clue how bright, but there was no doubt Nick Saban had things going in the right direction.
Illinois were something of a shock at 10-1 and champs of the Big 10 under Ron "Norv is my cool older brother" Turner, but with a solid quarterback in Kurt Kittner and some future NFL players like Brandon Lloyd, Eugene Wilson and David Diehl. And LSU's secondary, despite coming up with some big stops against Tennessee, was still considered a major vulnerability. This had the makings of a shootout, and it wound up being a very unconventional one.
- Spent this one on my parents' couch, enjoying a crown and coke with the family. It snowed outside that night, not an insignificant event in Louisiana. And yes, everybody made the "of course it snows while LSU is in the Sugar Bowl/cold day in hell jokes," but two BCS championships and a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl later, those seem a wee bit outdated, no?
The Game Itself:
- As soon as I saw the team walk on the field and the completely electric atmosphere in the Superdome, it began to cross my mind that Illinois might be in some real trouble...
- Few remember that this game started off with each team punting twice and just a single first-quarter touchdown by LSU. The final score of 47-34 and the crazy offensive numbers (900-plus combined yards of offense, 700-plus passing and both teams averaging more than 6 yards per play) make it easy to forget. I can remember being on pins and needles waiting for LSU to break out.
- But things got crack-a-lackin' in the second quarter with two quick touchdowns out of Domanick Davis, who finished with four on the night. I always wondered what kind of back Double-D could have been if LSU had played more games on turf.
- The Tiger defense really stepped up in the first half of this game, and once that lead spaced out it was pretty clear that if Kittner couldn't get going, Illinois had no chance in this one. Through the first 25 minutes of this game Kittner completed just 2 of 14 passes for FIVE yards. Of course, when you look at that start and then note that he still finished with 262 yards and 4 touchdowns, you have an inkling of the wild second half coming.
- Ryan Clark and Randall Gay turned in great performances. Gay finished with three pass bat-downs, an interception and a forced and recovered fumble. Clark, five tackles, a sack and two pass-defenses of his own.
- The Illini struck quickly in the half's final five minutes to cut the game to 27-7, only to have LSU tack on another 7 in the remaining 3:30. This was one of the first times I ever saw LSU line up against a top-10 team and thought "these guys just can't run with us." Reed wasn't just getting open, it looked like Illinois was leaving him open.
- There are only two 400-yard-plus passing days in LSU history, and Davey has two of them. He set Sugar Bowl records for completions, attempts and passing yards on the day. 31-53 for 444 yards with four touchdowns.
- Mr. Biletnikoff Josh Reed hauled in 14 catches for 239 yards and two scores. It's worth noting that had the NCAA counted postseason statistics (which began in 2003 if I recall), Reed would have finished with 108 catches for 1,979 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. Davey would have passed for 3,791 yards at 9.0 yards per attempt -- just a tenth of a yard behind Jamarcus Russell's 2006 number.
- Starting with about 9 minutes left in the third quarter, Kittner warmed up a little, finding big plays to his receivers, Lloyd (who caught two touchdowns and threw a third) and Walter Young, getting a pair of quick scores. But a big sack and later an interception allowed LSU just enough breathing room to withstand the rally. Lloyd's 40-yard TD to Young on a reverse-pass had us sweating, but it would be Devery Henderson of all people (who was still a spindly legged running back at this point) that allowed the Tigers to kill the final five minutes and take home with win. Henderson rushed for 46 yards on 9 carries on that final possession.
Ed. Note: This will be our last installment with a new season commencing next week. Its worth noting that about a week or two after this game, a shy 19-year-old made a phone call to Tiger Rag magazine looking for any opportunity to get his foot in the sports writing door. Even volunteered to work for free. Then-editor Greg LaRose graciously offered some pay and I had my first writing job. When we pick this back up in the 2002 season my memories get a lot more vivid, as I spent almost all of that season in the press box.
For More Entries In This Series, Visit The Memory Lane Archive.