"Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction"
Many citizens of Tiger Nation, myself included, were not around to see LSU's Billy Cannon zig and zag his way to the Heisman Trophy against the Rebels on that legendary Halloween night over 50 years ago. But the Ole Miss game still carries special significance for Tiger fans every season.
Since the turn of the century, LSU is 10-3 against the greatest generation's greatest rival. But that dominant record is not indicative of the competitive nature of the series the past 13 seasons. Six of LSU's ten wins over that stretch have been decided by a touchdown or less.
After a 20-6 LSU win in 2000, Ole Miss established themselves as a thorn placed squarely in Nick Saban's side through the rest of his tenure in Baton Rouge. Eli Manning threw three touchdowns against a hapless LSU secondary in 2001, leading to a chorus of boos throughout Tiger Stadium as the Tigers fell to 4-3 on the year. That embarrassment, however, forced Saban to finally remove the shackles from the legendary combination of Josh Reed and Rohan Davey, who was held to only 183 yards passing on the night. Their aerial assault led to an improbable run to the SEC Championship after multiple teams in front of LSU, including the 6-1 Rebels, went on long losing streaks to end the year.
2002 saw a struggling LSU offense desperately turn to Rick Clausen as the starter for the Ole Miss game on a frigid night in Death Valley. The only thing colder than the weather was Clausen himself, who was 2-6 with an interception and had LSU trailing 10-0 before Marcus Randall was brought off the bench to lead a touchdown drive just before halftime to cut the lead to 10-7. Randall would then throw the game winner to Michael Clayton in the fourth quarter in a 14-13 nail biter against a Rebel team that did not play in a bowl game.
The most significant game of this millennium came in 2003, as the SEC West leading Rebels and senior quarterback Eli Manning took Saban's eventual national championship team down to the wire in a 17-14 classic battle between two great teams. LSU's historic defense gave up only seven points, after Matt Mauck threw a pick six on LSU's first play of the game. It was the LSU defense, however, that would provide the biggest play of the game, as Tiger legend Chad Lavalais pushed the Ole Miss center into Eli Manning on a 4th down to seal the win.
Alley Broussard made his mark in the LSU history books in 2004, as the Tigers overcame a 4th quarter deficit against a horrible Ole Miss team in Tiger Stadium. Despite the Senior Night celebration, Saban benched Marcus Randall in favor of wildly inconsistent redshirt freshman Jamarcus Russell who finished the night 6-19 for 66 yards and a pick six. Fortunately, a passing game was not necessary as Broussard set LSU's single game rushing record with 250 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including the game winner in the 4th quarter. Joseph Addai also topped 100 yards in a gritty 27-24 win in Saban's final season in Baton Rouge.
Les Miles made a splash in his first season as LSU's head coach in 2005 with a 40-7 win in Oxford, with only a late 4th quarter touchdown saving the shutout for first year Rebel coach Ed Orgeron. Miles experienced the true nature of this series, however, in 2006, as a Rebel team that failed to play in a bowl game took an LSU team that finished #3 in the country to overtime in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers needed two late touchdowns from Jamarcus Russell to overcome a 4th quarter deficit before winning 23-20 in overtime.
LSU's national championship team cruised to a comfortable 41-27 road win in 2007 despite giving up nearly 500 yards to the Rebels in Vaught Hemingway stadium. But the Rebels crushed the Tigers in Death Valley in 2008 in a game that was not as close as the 31-13 score indicated. A ragged LSU team that seemed deflated after losing in overtime to Alabama in Nick Saban's first trip back to Tiger Stadium mustered only 37 rushing yards on Senior Day. Jarrett Lee threw the last of his mind blowing 16 interceptions on the year before being knocked out of the game to the raucous cheers of the thinned out LSU crowd that still remained after going down 21-3 in the second quarter.
As difficult as that game was to watch, however, it was the 2009 game that left the biggest mark on the collective psyche of Tiger Nation. Les Miles lost his third straight game to Houston Nutt, going back to 2007 when his Arkansas Razorbacks upset Miles' #1 LSU team in the last game of the regular season in triple overtime. But it was the way the loss happened that left the media and many members of Tiger Nation in a haze of rage and uncertainty that lingers to this very day.
Miles' underdog Tigers trailed late, but scored late on a 25 yard touchdown pass from Jordan Jefferson to Rueben Randle to bring the score to 25-23 with a minute remaining. Then, Brandon Lafell miraculously recovered an onside kick to give the Tigers a ray of hope. How much easier would things have been for Miles had his team not fought to the end and the kicking team NOT made such a great play, and Ole Miss simply kneeled the ball to end the game?
As fate would have it, Lafell then took a 26 yard screen pass from Jordan Jefferson to bring LSU to the 32 yard line, just at the edge of the range for a game winning field goal attempt. The chaos that followed was truly one of the most frustrating minutes in Tiger history.
Despite having two timeouts and only needing a few yards to get into field goal range, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton frustratingly called two consecutive passing plays. After throwing incomplete on first down, an inexcusable second pass play was called, with Jordan Jefferson disastrously getting sacked for a nine yard loss on 2nd and 10. Miles immediately called a timeout with 32 seconds remaining, leaving the Tigers out of field goal range on 3rd and 19 at the 41 yard line.
Things then went from bad to horrible as Jefferson was pressured yet again on third down and had to hurry a desperate screen pass to Stevan Ridley, who frustratingly did not get out of bounds after losing seven more yards to back the Tigers up to midfield to set up 4th and 26.
At that point, the train really went off the rails. For some unknown reason, a time out was not granted until there were nine seconds left on the clock, despite Ridley being tackled with 25 seconds remaining. Miles claimed that he did attempt to call a timeout, but the officials never stopped the clock. There is no excuse, however, for not making a clear timeout call in that situation. But it is interesting that video of Miles during that time was never shown, especially considering the video of Miles during what happened next that immediately went viral.
On 4th and 26 from midfield, LSU made another miraculous play that would have been better for Miles if his team had NOT converted. Jordan Jefferson was under immediate pressure yet again and had to throw the Hail Mary before his receivers had time to get to the end zone. Terrance Toliver made a great adjustment and catch, but was tackled at the six yard line with 3 seconds remaining, although the clock ran down to 1 second.
At that point, the sideline was in disarray, and the players on the field were just as confused as to what to do. Not expecting a Hail Mary to be completed short of the end zone, no one seemed to know if there was time to send the out field goal unit. Unfortunately, the worst possible decision was made, and not only was the field goal not attempted, but the offense didn't even run a play. Instead, Jefferson, who took the long lasting blame and vitriol for the debacle along with Miles, attempted to spike the ball. He was late, obviously, as the clock expired before the ball was even snapped.
The confusion on display during that chaotic sequence should not have come as much of a surprise to anyone that had watched Gary Crowton's convoluted system try to operate at any point that season, not to mention 2008. The same difficulty getting plays called on time, pre snap penalties, miscommunications, or having any rhyme or reason for the plays that were eventually run, was a constant source of frustration from 2008's interception bonanza all the way through Crowton's dismissal at the end of the 2010 season.
The local and national media, not to mention Tiger Nation, crucified Miles mercilessly for the meltdown, perhaps deservedly so. But the level of ridicule and his reputation as some sort of bumbling savant that has continued almost four years later, despite going 41-8 since that game, with all eight losses coming to top 10 teams, is honestly quite perplexing.
As for the Ole Miss series, Miles has reasserted himself with authority. Jordan Jefferson and the Tigers piled up nearly 500 yards of offense in a 43-36 win in 2010 on the way to an 11 win season. Miles then put the final nail in Houston Nutt's Rebel coffin in 2011. LSU and Jefferson once again approached 500 yards of offense, but this time the defense showed up as well. Not only did that legendary Tiger squad hold the Rebels to less than 200 yards and only 3 points, but they also scored two touchdowns of their own on the way to a 52-3 rout in Oxford. Miles would famously take a mercy knee with over five minutes remaining inside the 5 yard line rather than run up the score in Houston Nutt's final home game as an SEC coach.
The Rebels showed serious signs of life in Tiger Stadium last year under new coach Hugh Freeze. Zach Mettenberger and Bo Wallace found themselves in a shootout, as both threw at least 35 passes and approached 300 yards. LSU's defense gave up yards and points in bunches, but also hauled in 4 turnovers, and needed every one as LSU gave the ball up 3 times as well. But it was Odell Beckham's 89 yard punt return for a touchdown in the 4th quarter that gave LSU the break it needed to tie the game up. Mettenberger then led LSU on a game winning 64 yard drive with Jeremy Hill scoring a 1 yard touchdown run with just 15 seconds left to secure a 41-35 win.
The Ole Miss program built on their energizing finish by securing a highly ranked recruiting class that led many to label the Rebels a dark horse contender in the SEC West for 2013. After a 3-0 start that included an impressive road win over the Texas Longhorns, Ole Miss went on a brutal SEC stretch, losing road games at Alabama and Auburn before a heartbreaking last second home loss to Texas A&M last weekend.
The 3-3 Rebels now find themselves decimated by injuries, and facing a must win game against LSU this weekend. LSU is also at the end of a brutal SEC stretch, with only one remaining challenge standing in the way of a matchup with Alabama for control of the SEC West. The Ole Miss Rebels, in always hostile Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The crowd, and certainly not the team, has not forgotten the mercy knee from 2011, no matter how well intentioned it may have been. Expect a very dangerous Rebel offense to come out firing against a still maturing Tiger defense, as they will have to score well into the 30s to have much chance at all of outscoring LSU. Zach Mettenberger threw 2 interceptions last year against the Rebels, and will be looking to show this aggressive defense just how improved this offense is compared to the young 2012 squad.
While I predicted LSU to finish the regular season 10-2 in my preseason State of the Nation address, with both losses coming before the bye week and the November clashes with Alabama and Johnny Manziel, I did not pick Ole Miss to upset the Tigers, unlike many of the "experts". I felt that LSU's depth would have them better equipped at the end of the SEC gauntlets each team would be concluding.
But LSU has had to rely purely on it's starting playmakers on offense, and will have to again if they are going to outscore Bo Wallace and the dangerous Rebel offense. The LSU defense is still a work in progress, and while progress was evident the last six quarters against Mississippi State and Florida, this Rebel attack presents much stiffer competition.
As always, the stakes are higher than ever the deeper into the season we find ourselves. The big games against TCU, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Florida mean less and less as we move forward. And none of them presented a bigger moment than what is facing the Tigers on Saturday night in Oxford. If this exciting group of LSU Tigers hopes to keep it's SEC and National Championship hopes alive, this is a very important date, indeed.
"That's the reason they're called lessons, because they lessen from day to day"