*Ed. Note: I wrote this last night, so bare with me. Not sure anybody's in the mood for anything positive in the wake of the Garrett news though.*
When it comes to talking about my favorite LSU moments, I have a distinct advantage in my time as a student coinciding with the first four seasons of the Nick Saban era (2000-2003). Never mind being a student reporter for Tiger Rag magazine the last two. So I was fortunate to be up close and personal with the best and worst teams of that period.
Those four seasons tend to get a whitewash as the years pass, as is the case with most of history. All people seem to remember is Saban walking in, waving a magic wand, winning the SEC in 2001 and *poof* elite program. Well in September of 2003, that wasn't exactly the case. Make no mistake, the overwhelming majority of fans were certain the program was headed in that direction, but there wasn't a sense of arrival yet. Despite the conference title, despite exciting wins over ranked teams, LSU still felt like a team in the back half of the top 25 trying to work its way up. The 2002 season featured really bad losses to Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn. And then there was the Miracle on Markham against Arkansas, which felt like just another example of LSU just not being able to find a way to win when it really mattered (the winner of that game, of course, went to Atlanta). The 2003 Cotton Bowl against Texas only further cemented the notion that the Tigers weren't quite ready for the top 10, as Roy Williams all but beat LSU single handedly with three touchdowns on four total offensive touches. LSU just wasn't there yet.
But that began to change on September 20, 2003. The day 11th-ranked LSU beat No. 7 Georgia, 17-10.
I remember every detail of that day. It was a balmy and overcast, but you never would have noticed that, or the 2:30 kickoff, from the crowd on campus. ESPN College Gameday was returning to campus for the first time since 1997, and we (the student body) were ready, with a full-on block party raging Friday night on the steps of the PMAC. I was up at 6 a.m., out of my Tiger Plaza apartment and on my way, in order to secure parking for my family's traditional tailgating spot (my weekly custom during my four years, a tradition my younger brother carries on to this day).
Family friends and relatives didn't take long to arrive, but my parents did, and I actually missed seeing them in my rush over to the PMAC to witness Gameday. It was a show I'd missed a handful of times in the last seven or eight years, and after three seasons of waiting for them to come to LSU I wasn't about to miss them. Kirk Herbstreit went with the chalk and picked Georgia, with Lee Corso going against the grain and donning Mike the Tiger's headgear. Herbie took his boos, but it was hard to blame him. At that point in time, frankly, LSU hadn't shown they were ready to get on this type of stage and stay there.
I didn't waste time making it into the stadium early, snagging my spot in the press box and walking down to the field. My fellow students didn't waste much time either, and the section was quickly filled. Standing next to then-Tiger Rag editor Matt DeVille, I can distinctly remember the roar that erupted as "Callin' Baton Rouge" came over the loudspeaker. If I close my eyes I can still feel the goosebumps. I turned, waved to a gang of my friends in the student section and made hoofed it back up into the press box.
In the press box, somewhere around halftime, I turned around to see none other than the Gameday crew themselves, Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit walking by. Yeah, yeah, they're punch lines now, but when I was a 21-year-old journalism student/aspiring college football writer, it was huge. And then Corso, grabbing a plate of food, sat down right next to me. I don't remember that I ever introduced myself aside from "a fan of the show," but I actually did manage to get some words out.
The game itself was a brutal defensive game. Georgia moved the ball, but two turnovers and three missed field goals from star kicker Billy Bennett held them to three points for the first 55 minutes of the game. LSU couldn't do much, but Shyrone Carey managed to squirt through a tough Bulldog defense for a 21-yard touchdown, and the Tigers were clinging to a 10-3 lead for dear life. As he got up to head back to the ESPN set Corso, who was nice enough, warned that LSU would need another score if they were going to hold on. And he'd be right.
With seven or eight minutes left, all reporters who will be heading to the locker rooms after the game scramble down onto the field. You squeeze together on the sidelines, trying to stay out of the way of the football staff and the television crew. So there I was, inside the 20 yard-line as the Tiger offense was preparing to put the game away. They faced a third and two at the Georgia 18, well in range for a game-icing field goal. Things didn't feel over, but it victory appeared close.
And then Matt Mauck coughed up the ball after what would have been a three-yard run.
Georgia ball, 4:52 seconds left, 85 yards from tying the game. I watch as David Greene flips the ball out to Tyson Browning on a screen pass. He's got a convoy of blockers and there are not many defenders in front of him. He's running. He's still running. He's in the endzone, the game is tied and my jaw is in the grass. The loudest thing in Tiger Stadium at that second was the Georgia fan section, and all I could think is "How can this happen again?" Even though it was just a tied ball game with 4:25 to go, it just felt like another game the other team would find a way to win instead of LSU.
And then something happened I'd never seen before in daylight hours in Tiger Stadium.
LSU! LSU! LSU!
As that roar arose in the stadium, Devery Henderson dropped back for the kickoff, hands in the air to egg it on. He returned that kickoff to midfield and the roar only got louder. The Tigers weren't going to let this game slip by without a fight. Five consecutive runs later, LSU was facing third and four at the UGA 34. Matt Mauck rolled to his left. It was a called pass but he was clearly looking to just scramble for the first. Saban would later admit all he was hoping for was enough of a gain to give him some time to think about whether to chance a fourth down or not. But Odell Thurman was closing fast, and there was no way Mauck could avoid losing yards. My eyes were couldn't have been wider as he turned his shoulders, leapt and fired the ball off, just as Thurman drilled him in the chest.
The image has stuck in my mind in vivid slow motion. The ball traveled through the air downfield, and as my eyes moved towards the endzone, I could see No. 5 breaking free. Skyler Green had dropped two or three passes earlier in the game, so my thoughts in the moment consisted of "oh crap" on a loop. But he caught it. 93,000 people jumped for joy, but all my nerves allowed me to do was drop to my knees, head in hands, in relief. Corey Webster sealed the game with an interception four plays later, and a journey that ended with LSU's first national title of my lifetime, began.
And that's why this game is my most memorable moment. I was fortunate enough to have actually been at the Bluegrass Miracle, but that was one play. This was different. There had been big wins before, but this felt like a breakthrough. LSU was going to break into the top 10, and it felt like they really belonged there. As if the entire program stood up and said "We WIN these types of games." And when I think about calling LSU an elite program, I think of this day as the first time that saying it felt right.