The 2002 season wasn't always the most fun ride, but by Thanksgiving LSU was still in position to represent the West in the SEC Championship Game against a runaway East-leading Georgia. Nowadays, merely getting at Atlanta isn't nearly that big of a deal, but 10 years ago this was all still new to us, so it was a big deal. All that stood in the way of the 17th-ranked Tigers was an unranked, 7-3 Arkansas squad. At least that's how it felt before the game. But this one was a win-and-get-in game for the Razorbacks as well.
- Typical Little Rock Friday after Thanksgiving, and your then-intrepid student reporter watched this one from home. I think I talked myself into the idea that Marcus Randall's play versus Ole Miss had cemented the quarterbacking job, and that it was the biggest issue this team was facing. The way the grind was getting to them wouldn't really be available until the spring.
- Have I mentioned how much I cannot stand War Memorial Stadium? While I have never been, it's just never looked like a proper setting for an SEC game. The frequent clock issues and 2010's punt/skycam wire issues have only cemented it since. By 2002 Houston Nutt's Arkansas teams tended to follow the same formula: good running games coupled with tough defenses and stodgy, but occasionally effective passing games. But even with a dangerous talent like Matt Jones, it just felt like LSU had the better team here.
- I've always put Matt Jones in the "best bad quarterbacks" club with Jared Lorenzen. He wasn't a great passer (okay, he wasn't even a good one), but he could be so dynamic with the ball in his hands that he just scared you. Marcus Spears once mentioned to me that what made Jones so dangerous was, he was so smooth, and had such a long stride, that you never really had a good gauge for just how fast he was actually moving. And he was one of the first players that got Nutt's Giggity Motor Giggity-ing. Arkansas used some early spread-option concepts, including zone-read type of plays, and here you even see them line up in a flexbone-type formation.
- Weird seeing Skyler Green in No. 81, right? He'd played just little enough that I had spent most of the year wondering why he never redshirted, but it was kind of worth it just to see this play. Green would, of course, go down as one of the best return men in LSU history, but you rarely saw this type of first-step out of him as a wide receiver. Such a well-executed screen, and the speed just takes over. Ken Hamlin (no slouch as a safety) even has an angle here and just gets run by.
- The first half was rather formulaic. Defense keeps Arkansas somewhat contained while the offense sputters and manages all of 10 points in the first half.
- Arky gets its first touchdown on a fourth-and-goal on the one, and as I recall the pile was just messy enough that I remember thinking that instant replay might have overturned it.
- But just like that, LSU gets on the move, makes this a 17-7 game and with Jones having missed something like six of his last seven throws at this point, it was hard to imagine any sort of scoring outburst out of the home team.
- Sure enough, those fourth quarter issues come up again. Six minutes-n-change to go, and Fred Talley goes 56 yards on -- that's right, the sprint draw. Defense barely looks interested. Fourth quarter issues, yet again.
- But just then, the offense strings together a 13-play drive that eats up nearly the remaining six minutes, featuring two big third-down conversions by Randall. Sure, they settle for a field goal, but with 40 seconds to go, no way Arkansas can get six points, right?
- And there it is. Fifty yards, Jones to Wilson. The defense never wakes up from the Talley run, and lets a wide receiver get behind them in what was, essentially, a Hail-Mary situation.
- Here's something that's always bugged me. LSU still had a timeout. Your defense gets burned, but there's still another 30 yards to go, Arkansas has to have a touchdown, and they have 30 seconds and no timeout. Get your defense on the sidelines and get them organized. Complete failure of situational awareness, and clock management, by the LSU staff.
- Jones had completed exactly four passes on the day, but that 31-yarder to Decori Birmingham couldn't have been more on the money. The Mircacle on Markham. I found myself wondering if this was what those Kentucky fans felt like. Like it wasn't real. Like something that would only happen on X-Box. The penalty on the extra point was a tiny sliver of hope but it didn't really matter. Karma, I suppose, and a fitting ending to the 2002 season. No SEC title game birth (not that this team would've had a chance in hell against that Georgia squad), and a complete deterioration over the season's final month. Saban's constant emphasis of a 60-minute game just felt lost on this team. Though once again, we would see these lessons take root in 2003.