The euphoria of the Bluegrass Miracle kind of hid the fact that the 2002 LSU Football team was really struggling. Sloppy, undisciplined and struggling to find an identity on offense. And Bradie James could only do so much on defense.
It came to a head when an Alabama squad that was on probation and ineligible for postseason play shut out the Tigers 31-0, on a witchtits-freezing night in Baton Rouge. No video highlights appear to exist, but as I recall the Tide ran the sprint draw play about 116 times for 943 yards on the night.
Bottom line, No. 21 LSU was a team that was still young in some crucial areas, deficient in talent in others, and in general starting to tune out their head coach. And as much as this would set up the 2003 year, it was rough to watch by mid-November. But there were still two games left on the schedule, including the final home game of the year against Eli Manning-led Ole Miss.
- Another frosty night in Tiger Stadium, with redshirt freshman Rick Clausen getting his first start for the beleaguered Randall. Clausen played the fourth quarter versus Bama, completing 3-6 for 26 yards (and was sacked twice). Yes, this somehow seemed like an alternative to Randall.
- The Rebels came into this one 5-5 with just two conference wins. Manning had pulled a marquee upset up Ron Zook's first Florida squad, but endured some true butt-kickin's against Bama, Arkansas and Georgia.
- We miss you Uncle Ron! It's just not an SEC Saturday night on ESPN without that velvet voice...
- The middle Clausen got off to a brutal start, losing 10 yards on a sack on the game's opening drive and throwing an interception on his second to set up an Ole Miss field goal.
- FIVE fumbles in this game for the Tigers. In fact, that particular stat probably says the most about the 2002 squad -- 35 fumbles on the entire year. Even with them only losing 18 of them, that's probably more turnovers than the 2011 squad had all year, not even counting interceptions.
- Marcus Randall had one of his best games of the year coming off the bench for Clausen, and led one heck of a two-minute drive to end the half. He would connect on his last five throws, including this 19-yarder to Devery Henderson. Naturally, Henderson broke his arm just as he was beginning to emerge as a valuable compliment to Michael Clayton. Such was the '02 season.
- When LSU's second lost fumble of the night led to an easy field goal for the Rebs, something about this game suddenly felt like 2001 all over again...
- The big sack by Norman LeJeune at the 3:26 mark of the video began to flip field position in LSU's favor. Career game for the senior strong safety, with 13 tackle and three tackles-for-loss, including two sacks. LeJeune wasn't the best athlete on LSU's defense, but he was physical and really took to the Saban scheme well once he got the mental side down.
- Another fumble, and another possession on the LSU doorstep with a chance to put the game away, when a ball bounces off a Rebel running back's pads and right into the hands of none other than fan-favorite whipping boy Demetrius Hookfin. As I've mentioned before, Hook was a player I got to know that season, and it was a lot of fun watching him develop into a solid veteran corner. In fact, I remember blurting out an audible "HOOK!" as he picked off the pass, which led to Matt DeVille (whom I made fast friends with, and would eventually succeed Greg LaRose as my boss) joking with me about getting booted out of the press box. I nearly believed him too. I was still nervous around the LSU higher-ups at this point.
- Amazingly, the offense still managed to go nowhere, even with a fantastic setup off of the turnover. But Randall still had some heroics in him, with a 10-play, 74-yard drive to put the Tigers on top. He would finish with a solid 13-20 for 179 yards and two touchdowns on the night. In hindsight, performances like this (and others that would punctuate his career) always made it seem like Randall was just better off in a relief role in terms of quarterbacking. He had plenty of athletic ability, but often seemed to overthink what he was doing and hesitate. When he could get in a rhythm and let his talent take over, Randall could be pretty damn effective.
- Unable to stand prosperity, LSU would give Manning three more chances to make something happen. Even with a Corey Webster interception wasn't enough to close this one out. This squad never quite took to Saban's 60-minute philosophy, in spite of several demonstrations of the lesson's value.