And so the 2004 season opener came and went. A game that was expected to be a celebration of LSU ascending to the top of the college football world turned into a sloppy nail-biter that raised some serious concerns. The offense was incredibly inconsistent, the defense looked shockingly vulnerable and the general vibe of the team looked sloppy and un-prepared for the level of fight the Tigers got out of the visiting Beavers.
Was it the weather? Opening-game jitters? Week two helped to reassure the faithful to a degree, a 53-3 rout of Arkansas State. Justin Vincent rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns, the quarterback combo of Marcus Randall and Jamarcus Russell combined to complete 12-20 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Hell, Corey Webster even managed to catch a touchdown filling in as a receiver.
Meanwhile, it was time for the SEC season opener, a road trip to LSU's then-biggest division rival, Auburn.
- Game preparation for this one would be marred by Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast watching the massive Hurricane Ivan. The storm, at one point, reached the size of the State of Texas and hit the tip of Cuba as a category five. Voluntary evacuations were ordered for the southeast portion of the state as Louisiana appeared in the crosshairs. Yours truly stocked up on supplies and prepared for a one-man hurricane party in my Bogalusa apartment. But the storm eventually shifted tracks and made landfall in Baldwin County, Alabama. Louisiana was inconvenienced with some wind and rain, but largely unscathed -- although the disaster preparation in New Orleans was deemed "poor" by experts. The storm would kill 25 people in the state of Alabama and cause about $18.8 billion in damage (I'm going by Wikipedia here so excuse any inaccuracies).
- While there was some talk of postponing or even moving the game as the storm remnants passed over Auburn, the storm made quick progress and would be gone by game time on Saturday, Sept. 18. Auburn was undefeated and ranked 14th in the country, but still very much living with the fallout of 2003's incredibly high preseason expectations, and a late-season coup attempt by super booster Bobby Lowder to replace head coach Tommy Tuberville with his former offensive coordinator and then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino. Lowder's crowd was exposed, and between the massive amount of negative press and bowl/Iron Bowl wins by Auburn, Tuberville held on to his job. As much as nearly every LSU fan hated Tuberville, it was hard not to see what happened and feel...I don't know...sympathetic-ish? Too strong of a word?
- Auburn returned an experienced offense, with a veteran offensive line, senior quarterback Jason Campbell and the loaded backfield combination of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown. Of course, aside from the Caddy and Brown, most of that offense had notably underachieved in 2003. But new offensive coordinator Al Borges (who of course just floundered out at Michigan last season) had brought a fresh approach with a well-managed West Coast style passing game and a focus on the team's clear strength -- that dominating running back duo. And while Auburn's defense was replacing a couple of stars like Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, they did return a ton of veterans like defensive backs Junior Rosegreen and Carlos Rodgers, linebacker Travis Williams and defensive linemen Bret Eddins and Jay Ratliff.
- Everything started out pretty well for LSU: a 14-play, 80-yard drive following the opening kickoff. The running game was effective and Randall was on-point, completing 4-6 passes, including two big third downs. He capped things with a beautiful 9-yard strike on a skinny post to Dwayne Bowe in the back of the endzone.
- If twitter had been a thing in 2004, this certainly would have been a #karma moment, right? After stealing an overtime win in part to three missed extra points, Ryan Gaudet shanks his first, wide right.
- One thing I definitely don't remember about Marcus Randall, is how bad his mechanics are. His feet are all over the place on his follow through and his arm motion is much more shot-putt-y than I remember. I've always thought that Jimbo Fisher's biggest gift as an Off. Coordinator/Quarterback Coach was his ability to adjust to the skills of his quarterback. But I do think he's somewhat overrated with regards to refining those skills.
- But the home team would respond with a 14-play drive of their own. Campbell hit five of his first six, converting two third downs, including a third-and-10. Still, LSU's defense stiffened in the red zone and held Auburn to a field goal.
- As the first quarter ended, LSU stuck with a pre-game plan and gave Russell the game's second drive. And while he hit a beautiful 42-yard play-action pass to Craig Davis early on, a 10-yard sack and two incompletions short-circuited the possession in at the Auburn 25. Chris Jackson would nail a 42-yarder to give LSU a 9-3 lead.
- Neither team would gain more than 30 yards on their next nine possessions combined. Both offenses lost their rhythm, particularly the LSU passers. Neither Russell nor Randall completed another pass until the final drive of the third quarter.
- The defenses played a big role in those struggles, combining for 16 tackles for loss and each forcing a fumble. The offenses were a combined 10 for 28 on third down. Lionel Turner had one of his best games as a Tiger, with nine tackles and 3 tackles for loss, including a sack.
- In the third quarter sophomore Alley Broussard really began to get going, breaking a 38-yard run to help get LSU within field goal range. He'd finish the game with 84 yards on just 10 carries, a number that Nick Saban would note after the game needed to be much higher in the future.
- But a delay of game and a personal foul penalty turned 3rd-and-eight at the 33-yard line into 3rd-and-28 at the LSU 47. And then Randall would take a 10-yard sack, crushed by Eddins in one of the game's signature hits, lost to rnolan's youtube channel.
- Midway through the fourth, the home Tigers began to scratch and claw out a drive. Campbell just escaped the pass rush to find Courtney Taylor on 4th and 12. A handful of plays earlier Corey Webster had just missed stealing a screen pass out of Cadillac Williams' hands. It was a 12-play, 59-yard drive, but there was a depressing sense of inevitability to it. LSU's offense could do nothing, and here was Auburn putting together a drive when there was a real sense that our Tigers wouldn't be able to match it.
- And then Campbell did it again. On 3rd-and-12, he found Taylor just behind the defense in the endzone.
- EXCEPT JOHN VAUGHN SHANKS THE EXTRA POINT WIDE LEFT! IT HAPPENED AGAIN! ANOTHER MISSED PAT ARE YOU KIDDING ME? A bad snap helped throw Vaughn off.
- And then...a flag? For what? Offsides? Please tell me LSU wasn't offsides on a PAT, right?
- Well...it definitely wasn't offsides. No, Ronnie Prude, misidentified as No. 9 Early Doucet, was flagged for a personal foul for leaping and landing on a teammate. A rule that nobody in the SEC had ever seen called before, nor has seen called since. The league would abolish it after the 2004 regular season.
- And it would be another bad snap on the re-kick, but Vaughn would grove it through. 10-9, and all I remember was sitting in my apartment utterly gob-smacked by the idea that Auburn had shanked the extra point, only to be given a rekick on a complete bullshit call that NOBODY had ever seen called before.
- Still, there was just over a minute left. LSU had two timeouts, just needed a field goal and Russell had worked wonders in worse circumstances against Oregon State, right? Hitting that 21-yarder to Davis only added to the false hope. Russell would get LSU to midfield, only to miss Doucet on a slant by a few feet and watch the ball get tipped right to Junior Rosegreen, icing the game. Auburn would only get better as the season went on, and finished the year 14-0 and SEC champions, only to be locked out of the national title picture behind preseason Nos. 1 & 2 USC and Oklahoma, who both ran the table and played for the BCS title.
- Had we only known how accustomed we all would have to get to questionable officiating in the state of Alabama, right comrades?