By the end of October, No. 10 LSU remained a roll despite the loss of starting quarterback Matt Mauck. Backup Marcus Randall had acquitted himself well in his first start. A solid running game, coupled with a defense that was playing at a dominant level, and all seemed well. Of course, there would be clouds on the horizon.
The week of the 2002 Auburn game, LSU was jolted by the sudden departure of starting safety Damien James -- a former superstar recruit that had spent most of his career floundering before developing into an all-conference safety. On Wednesday of that week, not long before Nick Saban's annual mid-week press conference with the beat-writing crew, it was announced that James was leaving the team. The rumors were predictable, and while I was expecting a tense press-conference, I think we were all surprised when Saban entered Charlie Bagglio's office near the Lawton Room in Tiger Stadium and declared that he would "only discuss current players." He apparently really believed he'd be able to ignore the loss of an All-SEC senior defender. There wasn't exactly a ton asked, but the answers were the first real media meltdown I'd ever experienced from a coach famous for them. To this day there's never been anything confirmed on why James left. Personally, I always figured the failed drug test theory made the most sense, as it was the simplest theory.
Anywho, you couldn't help but notice a tense atmosphere surrounding the Tigers' trip to a 5-3 Auburn team that was coming off consecutive SEC losses (a brutal beatdown at home by Arkansas and an overtime loss to Florida in the Swamp).
This week's video installment comes courtesy of auburntigerfan91, as it was the only video of this game I could find. It's fairly one-sided, but why wouldn't it be? LSU certainly didn't have any highlights.
- Your humble correspondent made his second trip to deepest, darkest Alabama for this one. My father, younger brother and I drove up to Auburn and were lucky enough to have a good setup when we arrived. Some family friends had two sons at Auburn (one had graduated Brother Martin two years before me, the other a year behind me), and they brought their RV. All-in-all it made for a fun time, if you can deal with a lot of Auburn folks. The weather didn't help, as it was particularly nasty. But we made the best of it at the RV with a fish fry on Friday night and some post-game jambalaya on Saturuday.
- This was during the salad days of the LSU-Auburn rivalry, with LSU coming off that intensely gratifying 2001 win that propelled them to the SEC title. Auburn was wounded, but they had a couple of new coordinators in Bobby Petrino and Gene Chizik and some young talents, even with another knee injury sidelining Cadillac Williams. The biggest issue seemed to be quarterback, as the team kept bouncing back and forth between inconsistent Jason Campbell and the fairly meh Daniel Cobb.
- Early morning kickoff, Jefferson Pilot back when Jefferson Pilot was Jefferson Pilot. The original Trés Davés -- Rose, Neal and Baker -- were in full effect. I spent this game next to my future boss, Matt DeVille (then working for Scott McKay and Purple and Gold), and future Saints beatman Larry Holder, who was with the Reveille in those days. All of us agreed that Jordan-Hare Stadium's press box blew away LSU's old one.
- Future/current head coaches involved: six total, four within the SEC, with another one that lost his job to a midlife crisis.
- If the score didn't say enough about how one-sided this game was, LSU turned the ball over five times with four coming on Marcus Randall interceptions. He'd complete just 9-20 passes for 79 yards that day, and most of us thought we'd seen rock bottom in terms of quarterback performance. You never stop learning, do you?
- It just wasn't LSU's day from the beginning, with Domanick Davis coughing the ball up on the first play from scrimmage. Four of LSU's seven possessions in the first half ended in a turnover, with three of those coming in the first three plays of the drive. And another possession lost five yards in four plays before a punt. It was almost like the shitty weather infected the team.
- A 17-0 halftime deficit might has well have been 117-0, and in the second half the team looked ready to head home. The first two drives of the third quarter covered all of three yards on six plays.
- I believe to this day that this game is the sole reason you never see Nick Saban in a hat during a game.
- Near the end of the third quarter LSU scratched out a 15-play drive, even converting a big fourth down, before Randall threw a back-foot interception to Karlos Dansby. I remember the pass being doomed almost right out of his hands.
- Dansby had two interceptions on the day, and I remember this being one of the first times I really noticed the former receiver-turned linebacker. He was just this big, rangy guy with long arms who looked like he was playing about five positions simultaneously in this game.
- Once Auburn converted its final touchdown of the day, a 20-yard sprint-draw from Ronnie Brown (not the last we'd hear of this play), the quit you saw in the team finally seemed to spread to the coaching staff. The next drive featured six runs to just two passes, and all but looked like an attempt to just burn some clock and get home.
- And who says that Tommy Tuberville never matured? When Tre Smith broke free and set up a perfect rub-it-in touchdown, Auburn ate the clock on the doorstep instead. That's less insulting, right?
- It was my first time in the LSU locker room after a loss, and the amount of dejection was startling. Even Bradie James, who finished with 11 tackles and was usually one of the more even-keeled athletes I ever covered at LSU, just seemed completely dejected. It seemed silly to think that the James distraction had really impacted game prep that much, but LSU just never really seemed plugged in for this one. In hindsight, I think it was just a case of a team getting worn down by a coach that was still learning when to let up on his charges. Unfortunately for LSU, this would be a lesson Saban learned later on, after he left Baton Rouge.