Ah...freshman year...I can still smell that lovely Kirby Smith elevator eau de toilet...
My time at LSU had begun the previous June, and given that baseball almost immediately took home College World Series title No. 5, I thought my tenure in Baton Rouge was off to a pretty good start. And while I was, of course, right, the first month of football season was a little shaky. The Tigers entered a week five matchup with No. 11 Tennessee at 2-2 under new head coach Nick Saban. In general, nobody was sure what to expect of the new coach, and just about everybody was sure that while there was talent on this team, there was a ways to go to see things get better. The season started out with solid wins over Western Carolina and Houston, followed by a tough, but somewhat understandable loss to Auburn on the road.
And then Josh Booty threw his 26th interception in his last 15 games, costing LSU a loss to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Not the one in Tuscaloosa. The one in Birmingham. The coach LSU had broken the bank for* had just lost to UAB and people were not happy. Not that there was a hot-seat at all, but the new-coach optimism that you typically see in a first season was gone, especially with a top-15 SEC opponent coming to town.
That brings me to a confession. I don't admit this readily, but hey, these things are good for the soul. I watched this game from my dorm room in Kirby Smith Hall. Yes, I had tickets, but due to a combination of pessimism and not being able to get in touch with my friends to meet up following the tailgate (the only cell phone I had at the time was some flip-phone that stayed in my glove box "strictly for emergencies"), I said screw it and decided to watch the game on TV. While the thought to run over and get in the stadium occurred to me as things played out, I stayed in my room out of a fear of jinxing things. I did not miss a single one of the next 24 home games until I graduated in the spring of 2004. Not all the lessons we learn in college come in the classroom.
Once again, much thanks to rnolan53
*How hilarious is it to say that? LSU paid Saban $1.5 million in the year 2000, and there was legitimate outrage by some fans. After all, the most we knew about the guy was that he'd lost to the coach he was replacing in the 1995 Independence Bowl. If I recall, the number was one of the five highest in country at the time. It's amazing how quickly coaches salaries have escalated.
- Something of a rebuilding year for Tennessee, after losing some major studs from the 1998 national champion and '99 Fiesta Bowl squads. But there were still a lot of future NFL players on this team, like Donte Stallworth, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth and Travis Henry. A freshman Casey Clausen and his Val Kilmer/Top Gun haircut can be seen briefly, as Phillip Fulmer was trying to work him in with veteran A.J. Suggs.
- The '99 Arkansas game, coupled with a perfect game in the opener (11-11, 194 yards, three touchdowns) had cemented Rohan Davey as the people's choice at quarterback, but his practice habits compared to Booty's (Ro was known to be quite lackadaisical at times) led to Saban declaring the two "1A and 1B," even though Booty had started all four games at this point. The UAB debacle essentially forced his hand to try something new under center.
The Game Itself:
- LSU's head coach later became the head coach at Alabama. Tennessee's defensive coordinator later took the same job at LSU. And LSU's tight ends coach later became Tennessee's head coach. There's so much program incest in this game you can get cross-eyed if you think about it too much.
- Remember Adrian Karsten? The pre-Erin Andrews ESPN sideline reporter used to draw some gawks mainly because of his freakish height. Sadly, he committed suicide in 2005 after a conviction on federal charges of tax evasion.
- LaBrandon Toefield's 74-yard run is actually one of the more underrated big plays LSU made in the last decade. It was the first real signal that there might be something special brewing, and I vividly remember staring long and hard at my unused ticket before telling myself I had to stick with the hand I was dealt. Jim Hawthorne's radio call of the play is excellent as well.
- He'd had a great start to the season but this night was also something of a coming out for Josh Reed in terms of national exposure. Seven catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns -- it was also one of the first times we saw the Rohan-to-Reed Bubble Screen play go off. The single definitive play-call of the 2000-2001 seasons
- I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that Rohan Davey was a transformative player in this game. The play of Josh Booty over the last 15 games had just completely broken fan confidence, and it was clear both in this game and the '99 season-ender that the players just reacted differently when Davey was in the huddle (and it would become clearer yet again in the Peach Bowl following the season). Throw in the way he limped through an injured ankle as he made throw after throw, and we all saw an LSU team with a real playmaker at quarterback for the first time in a long time. But between injuries and a slightly improved level of play from Booty down the stretch, the "1A-1B" controversy lived on for the remainder of the season.
- The final minute and a half of this game is pretty unique in that I don't think that I've ever seen Nick Saban take the reins off a quarterback in quite the same way since. With the game tied and pinned deep on LSU's side of the field, it would have been really easy to just try and hold the ball and get to overtime -- more coaches would do it than you think.
- The first overtime game in Tiger Stadium history, and I don't know that you could script a better way for it to play out. The touchdown throw from Davey to Robert Royal remains one of the prettiest passes I've ever seen from a Tiger QB. The Vol defense had Royal covered pretty well, and Ro just stuck that sucker in there. The goal-line stand was almost academic. There was simply no way Tennessee was going to go into the north endzone, with the student section halfway onto the field already, and score.
- The post-game reaction shows just how starved we all were for a big win. Not that this game wasn't a big deal, but it was No. 11. Not No. 1. Of course, it wasn't the last time the students rushed the field that season.