There was a lot of firsts for yours truly in 2002 -- including a lot of professional ones, obviously, including my first business road-trip. The first week of October, my family had decided to make their first ever road trip to Gainesville for the LSU-Florida game -- which led to Tiger Rag getting yours truly credentialed for his first ever away-game working trip.
My folks drove, while I flew over to Orlando with an aunt and uncle and drove to Gainesville to meet them. I remember they sent me with a laptop that I vaguely recall holding with both hands as tightly as possible at almost all times. Except of course during the tailgate (drinking on the job WOOOO!), although we wound up next to a somewhat coarser group of LSU fans. I recall them having an ill opinion of the virtue of the young ladies at Florida. Which inevitably led to one of my uncles cursing them out for being "the reason people say so much shit about LSU fans." Fun times.
- LSU had rebounded well from that opening day shellacking against Virginia Tech to rattle off four straight wins by a combined score of 147-30. The Tigers were running the ball well, and Matt Mauck had just taken ahold of the starting job, though he was really just doing enough to get by. The defense was more of the story though, really feeling its oats and coming together, as the Tigers were finally beginning to develop the kind of athletes Nick Saban needed.
- I would say the Gators were in the throes of "Fireronzook.com" mania, but truthfully that had begun the day the New Orleans Saints assistant was tabbed as the legendary Steve Spurrier's successor. Not that Zook was doing much to change their minds. Despite returning Rex Grossman (people forget just how dominant he'd been the year before), Florida was destroyed at home by a loaded Miami squad, and were nipped on the road by Eli Manning-led Ole Miss just the week before. Fan confidence was stunningly low. Of course, at this point in my fanhood I'd been snakebit to have much real confidence, plus I was a big believer in the ol' "oh crap they lost last week now they'll be REALLY pissed" theory.
- As much as part of me wonders what would've happened if that fake field goal works -- it kind of took the life out of the Gators very early. That's one of the perils of taking risks early in games, especially if they don't work. You kind of saw that in the 2011 LSU-Florida game with Will Muschamp's fake punt call in the first quarter.
- Corey Webster's coming out party is still one of my most prominent memories of this game, as his three interceptions and touchdown return wound up netting him national player of the week honors -- the first of many national awards for the guy. His combination of size and wide-receiver ball skills made him so tough for opposing receivers, even if he still was a little lost in terms of the ins and outs of the defensive scheme at this point.
- It would take LSU's offense about a half to really get going, and a second quarter touchdown pass by Grossman kept things close, but in the third quarter Mauck hit six of his seven passes, including two touchdowns to Devery Henderson. Jimbo Fisher also did a great job of utilizing the zone-read game with Mauck and Domanick Davis. The two would combine for 151 yards on the ground.
- One of my other major memories of the game -- the way Gator fans filed out of the exits after the first touchdown of the second half. The complete and total lack of enthusiasm they had for the Zooker was so completely jarring; you couldn't help but feel like he was already doomed. I spent most of the game talking to a Gainesville Sun beat guy in the press box and the epitaph was all but written already. Though again, it's not like Zook ever did anything to redeem himself.
- The game was put on ice near the end of the quarter when a 24-yard Davis punt return set up a nifty touchdown pass, in which Mauck head-faked a bubble screen underneath before tossing a jump-ball to Henderson. Of course, the game's most impactful play was still to come.
- Ah...Blain Bech's shining moment as a Tiger -- a 35-yard fake field goal touchdown. It definitely felt like a middle finger from Saban to Zook. Not that I can think of any reason for animosity.
- You know, sometimes I wonder if all of Zook's problems went back to the bizarre decision to have the Gators wear black shoes. Never seemed to match up.
- Should we count the ways in which the Matt Mauck draw call was completely stupid? If the fact that LSU was up 36-7 with less than eight minutes to go wasn't enough of a reason to avoid risking the starting quarterback, Davis and freshman Joseph Addai had combined to run for 54 yards on four straight plays on the drive. Nevermind that you could easily wonder why Mauck was even in the game in the first place, since multiple backups were already rotating in at this point. And when asked post-game about the playcall, Saban could only respond that he didn't call the play. We would find out on Monday that Mauck had broken bones in his foot and would not return the rest of the season. Oddly enough, that one coaching gaff would wind up playing a major role in, not only the rest of 2002, but in 2003 as well.