Okay, this name works a little bit better.
So the last time we took a look back, the Wayback Machine brought us to the 2001 season, in which LSU rebounded from a 5-3 start to clinch the SEC West, ruin Tennessee's national title hopes while clinching its first conference title since the 1980s. The 2002 calendar year started off with a shootout win over Illinois in the Sugar Bowl, and optimism reigned as Tiger fans looked forward to the third season of the Nick Saban era.
Sometime in the week before that Sugar Bowl, a 19-year-old mass comm student, fresh out of his first media writing course, gave Tiger Rag Magazine a rather nervous phone call seeking some sort of employment, internship anything. I'm pretty sure the words "I'm willing to work for free" came out of me (Did I kill the suspense for you with the reveal that the 19-year-old is me? Seriously? Because that's kind of sad.) during the rambling voicemail, that was obviously coherent enough to get a return phone call from then-editor Greg LaRose (now the editor of New Orleans City Business), an interview and a job offer. The magazine happened to be in need of a stringer after Perryn Keys' departure (who since has moved up to the Advocate), and so the chance was mine. They even paid me, which was a nice bonus.
That spring had a lot of firsts, from my time covering any sort of event, my first byline (currently framed in my office, a wedding gift from my wife) and my first message board argument (few remember the 2002 recruiting class was called a "disaster" by a lot of recruitnicks). All in all it was a great time, but as you can imagine everything for me was building towards football season.
The summer previews came and went, as did media day. I admit to being fairly nervous and a little starstruck, but it's funny how quickly you adjust as you're around the coaches and players more often. Of course the whole "no cheering in the pressbox" thing still had to be explained to me.
Meanwhile, the season got off to a rough start for the Tigers. They gained just 214 yards in a 26-8 Beamerball butt-kicking by Virginia Tech (complete with requisite blocked punt), but thrashed the Citadel and Ben Roethlisberger-led Miami of Ohio at home. It's at the 2002 SEC opener that we pick things up, again, courtesy of rnolan53's youtube:
Notes and Observations:
(decided to skip the usual setting notes, given the lengthy intro)
- The Bulldogs are playing their usual role as LSU's version of the Washington Generals, but were limping towards the end of the Jackie Sherrill era after a high-water mark of 18 wins over the '99 and 2000 seasons. They walked into this game 1-2 with an 0-1 conference mark, but there were a handful of talents, like a freshman Jerious Norwood and underclassmen like Tommy Kelly and Ronald Fields that both eventually wound up in the NFL.
- LSU of course was starting the SEC title game hero, Matt Mauck, and were overall fairly experienced on offense with vets like Jerel Myers, Reggie Robinson, Domanick Davis, LaBrandon Toefield and sophomore Michael Clayton, coming off a big freshman campaign alongside Josh Reed. The offensive front, however, was a bit green still with redshirt freshman Andrew Whitworth starting at left tackle and players like Stephen Peterman and Ben Wilkerson going through their first full seasons as starters.
- In the years since, between the four other ridiculous punt returners LSU's had, it's easy to forget that in 2002, Domanick Davis was simply ridiculous returning punts. He'd already had a 100-plus yard return day against Miami-O, and a touchdown returned called back against Virginia Tech (that wound up being a huge momentum shift).
- State wound up getting 10 points off of turnovers in the first quarter and a half and held a 10-7 lead, but near halftime Jimbo Fisher and Saban would completely take the air out of the ball with a 10-play, 70-yard scoring drive, all running plays, including seven consecutive carries for 57 yards by Davis. You could kind of see State's will breaking on that drive.
- Mauck finished just four of 12 passing on the day with 52 yards, but he did manage to lead two third-quarter scoring drives that essentially put the game on ice, including that 36-yarder to converted running back Devery Henderson. Not his last touchdown reception, as you can imagine.
- Speaking of converted players -- hey that's former wide receiver Corey Webster playing cornerback. Wonder how that's going to turn out...
- Solid day from a Tiger defense that was a bit of a blend of the young and old, as some of the new and emerging talents like Webster, Travis Daniels, Marquise Hill and Marcus Spears were mixed in with veteran holdovers like Bradie James -- who would finish with 12 tackles and a TFL on the day -- Jeremy Lawrence, Demetrius Hookfin and Norman LeJeune. It was also the first year for young, but...let's say...energetic defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
- This game was another professional first, as I took my first post-game trip into the opposing locker room to get the Bulldog side of the story for the magazine. I was somewhat used to asking coaches questions at this point, but the idea of doing it with an old hand like Jackie Sherrill was certainly intriguing. And it wound up being somewhat more profound of an experience than I would've thought.
Sherrill wasn't that old really, 58 or so, but I'll never forget the look on his face as he sat down the typical "Tough loss coach, talk about..." and "Was [insert play] kind of a turning point..." bits that every coach gets after a game. His eyes had that Bassett Hound droop, but there was no sign of energy. Worn, like a piece of leather run through up and down a washboard and beaten dry on the Tiger Stadium bleachers. I wouldn't say he was drained, but in that moment you could see not just that particular loss, but what decades' worth had taken out of the man's heart. The lines in his face look less like wrinkles and more like worn crevices. There was this weakness to the man, like maybe he knew he wasn't long for his chosen game. It had to be a tough swallow for a man that won national championships as a player at Alabama, Southwest Conference titles at Texas A&M, and had even gotten Mississippi State to Atlanta for God's sake.
I don't know that what I felt in that moment was empathy for Sherrill in particular (the guy has left two different schools on probation -- though I bet we look at Joe Paterno's cracks on him back in the Pitt days in a different light, don't we?), so much as for anyone in his position. As much joy and as much pain as football causes for all of us, we'll never quite feel it the way Sherrill did that Saturday. It's something that's always stuck with me.