This week's trip will represent our last WayBack for this summer. Partially because we're in fall camp and have more important things to talk about, like this current team. Partially because I'll depart for vacation next week and by then we'll be sneaking up on pre-game. But also partially, because there's a lesson from this game that, perhaps, some of us need a refresher on.
The 2003 season rattled on. LSU reveled in the week two smiting of Arizona, and followed up with a somewhat-lackluster but still very comfortable 28-point win over Western Illinois. Around the SEC, the West-favorite Auburn Tigers were reeling after starting 0-2 in non-conference games, showing the cracks that made folks in Baton Rouge confident the West could be had. Georgia, the defending conference champs and No. 7 team in the country, were also 3-0 and coming into Tiger Stadium for what setup as the first bellwether for either squad.
At the time, it was the biggest home game LSU had seen, not just in the Nick Saban era, but probably in more than 20 years. Georgia was the predicted SEC Champion by every media outlet that didn't select Auburn, and a lot of people believed they would contend for the national championship. LSU was universally considered (even by many of its own fans), not on that level yet.
- There's no underscoring what campus was like this week. Just electric. The announcement of the first College Gameday visit since 1996 felt too good to be true for this intrepid student reporter. I went to practice every day that it was open, and in mid-week interviews couldn't help but feel like the players were pretty focused. The overwhelming sense was just that this was going to be fun. I don't even remember that many complaints about the day-time CBS kickoff.
- Georgia had handled their first three opponents, though not quite in the kind of fashion I would've expected from a team with their reputation. They were loaded with talent: All-American, and legit college football superstar at this point, David Pollack (of Coates Bathroom fame, per a tremendously creative Gameday sign), all-conference quarterback David Greene (more fun trivia -- did you know Greene and Pollack had been teammates since Pop Warner ball?) and a host of young talents like Fred Gibson, Reggie Brown, Ben Watson, Thomas Davis and freshman linebacker Odell Thurman, who was blossoming into yet another stud for rising-star defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder.
- I've written about this experience before, and I'll spare y'all a lot of the press box details: meeting the Gameday crew (all very nice, Herbstreit in particular is a cool guy), the weather (balmy, overcast) or the buzz in the stadium (spine-shivery). I'll keep this focused on the game.
- Fun piece of trivia, but the final lineup of what we think of as the 2003 defense wasn't completely in place yet. Bryce Wyatt was starting at d-tackle next to Chad Lavalais, with Adrian Mayes at linebacker and Travis Daniels playing free safety next to Jack Hunt. LaRon Landry hadn't taken the starting lineup yet, so Daniels was back there instead of corner.
- This really was an ugly game. Both teams were able to string together some brief drives, but if not for a Matt Mauck interception, the quarter would have ended scoreless.
- Funny thing about this Georgia squad was that its major foible still tends to plague them today: the Dawgs were young up front, and really struggled running the football. A common theme for Mark Richt teams with young offensive lines.
- Sometimes I wonder if Billy Bennett still thinks about this game. He made a chip-shot early, but missed three 35-plus yarders in the second quarter.
- LSU's touchdown drive kind of came out of nowhere in the second quarter, following three-and-outs on three possessions in a row. Mauck's 31-yard completion to Skyler Green was huge. For most of this game, the sophomore slot guy struggled, with two or three drops. Shyrone Carey's touchdown drive was perfectly emblematic of his style. He was short and stocky, but he had really quick feet, and on inside runs sometimes defenders couldn't even see him until it was the open field. Made him frustrating as HELLLLLL to watch when he was playing quarterback at Archbishop Shaw.
- When LSU took its first possession of the third quarter straight down the field for a Ryan Gaudet field goal, even with the game at a one-score deficit, it still felt like they were closing in on putting this game away.
- One of the major turning points of this game -- Daniels' well-timed safety blitz knocks out Greene, and D.J. Shockley enters, like fresh meat thrown to the...well...Tigers...Anyway, Shockley spent the next five plays losing 20 yards for Georgia. And once LSU's defense smelled blood, it didn't even matter when Greene came back in.
- After an ill-fated fake punt attempt, the game seemed to be in LSU's hands. Carey was in a groove, and a big third-down completion by Mauck put LSU in field goal range with a chance to put his one away.
- Fourth quarter issues. After everything that the 2002 team went through, it just seemed like the same ol'-same ol'. Mauck drops the ball with the game all but there for the icing. At this point, I was down on the sidelines with the rest of the media contingent. Even with the fumble, it just didn't feel like Georgia would be able to get seven points the way things were going.
- And then it happened. I can still see Tyson Browning running, and just thinking "why aren't they tackling him?" LSU almost seemed to be moving in slow motion. And now the game's tied. Four minutes and 25 seconds left. And the Tigers are blowing another game in the fourth quarter. "Dammit, they had this game. How could it slip away again?"
- The stadium was stone silent. As quiet as I'd ever heard it. Those notes of Georgia's band, those were the first time you could hear anything they played all day. And there it was. L-S-U...L-S-U...L-S-U...L-S-U...
And Devery Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield.
- Fans impact a football game. It's stupid to argue otherwise. I'll save the "rise up and lift the team to a higher place" bullshit to other Bills writing on the web, but don't tell me it didn't matter. I was there. A program is more than just coaches, players and support staff. The fans are a part as well, and having a successful one means that everybody is moving in one direction. And on that stuffy September afternoon, the LSU program stood up and said "NO. NO. NO! THIS.IS. OUR. TIME. NO MORE OF THIS ALSO-RAN CRAP. THIS GAME IS OURS, WE'RE NOT GIVING IT UP, AND IF YOU WANT IT YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO A HELLUVA LOT MORE TO TAKE IT." I say this now in the hopes that today's fans will remember these moments. Remember that there was a time when LSU was up against it, and we, as fans, didn't boo. We didn't whine or complain or say fire this coach or that quarterback. We stood up and we said FUCK. THIS. SHIT. LET'S WIN THIS GAME. I chose to write about this game for a reason. These are the moments we live for as fans. Championships are great, but a destination is nothing without a memorable journey. And moments like these will be the ones you remember. The ones you tell your kids and grandkids about. And I hope that people will remember that this season during the tougher moments.
- And the Tigers didn't let us down. Mauck rolls and throws. From my knees on the sidelines, I could see there was somebody behind the defense and I could see that the ball was going to get there. CRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAPCRAP and then just dual waves of pure jubilation and relief. Skyler Green lives forever. 17-10, less than a minute to go. Just hold on.
- Georgia had timeouts, but it in my bones all I could think is "at worst, this goes to overtime, and Greene won't get another cheap score." The Georgia QB had probably thrown that fade to Brown a ton of times, but Corey Webster was in a zone, and with that one hand he pulled in LSU's biggest win since the 2001 SEC Championship game.
- My postgame assignment was the Georgia locker room. I remember Richt's stoicism, and Pollack's graciousness. I also remember thinking David Greene looked more like a doorman at Reggie's than a college QB.
- The postgame punditry dwelled on Georgia's missed opportunities. A refrain we ought to be used to by now, I suppose. But I still look back on this moment as the first time beating an elite team didn't feel like a fluke for LSU. It was a breakthrough. Not that it was really the last one, but it's one that can still live on in this program's history, and in the hearts, and minds, of fans as we prepare for another potential run at a national championship.