The 2002 season ended with a whimper that was still audible as 2003 dawned. And when I say dawned, I mean it quite literally, as LSU played Texas in the Cotton Bowl very early that New Year's Day. I don't quite remember where I watched it, but it's just the same as there's no video of it that I've been able to find. Texas won, 35-20, mostly thanks to Roy Williams' combined 181 yards of offense and two touchdowns -- on all of five total touches. Williams' performance, alongside Corey Redding's mammoth day on defense served as a stark reminder that as far as LSU had come as a program, there was still a ways to go before we could truly think of them as one of the elites.
Still, time went on. Another top-five recruiting class came in, headlined by a pair of four-star quarterbacks, Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn, with a host of talented Louisiana prospects like Laron Landry, Craig Davis, Alley Broussard, Justin Vincent and Kirston Pittman. Spirits were high in the spring, as Matt Mauck returned from his broken foot, while players like Ben Wilkerson, Marcus Spears and Michael Clayton were free from nagging injuries that had plagued them in the prior year.
It was a fun time for your humble correspondent. I continued to grow as a reporter, as Tiger Rag shifted leadership from Greg LaRose to Matt DeVille. My other side job with Party Pics didn't exactly hurt my social life either. As the school year ended, I picked up a summer job working for the Boys & Girls Club of Baton Rouge's summer camp, and a one-bedroom apartment in Tiger Plaza. A lot of hot days working at the Baker BREC gym, and a lot of nights spent at Fred's.
Meanwhile, I remember not having much of a feel for what the 2003 Tigers would look like. There was a sense of optimism, but still tempered with the fact that the offense didn't truly know what it had at quarterback, while the defense had to replace its unquestioned leader in Bradie James. Auburn, based on a hot ending to 2002 and a healthy backfield of Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and stud JUCO transfer Brandon Jacobs (a Louisiana native that had been told he could only come to LSU as a linebacker/d-end), was the chic choice to win the league, but you couldn't help but feel our Tigers were at least going to have a say.
Fall camp approached, and you could see early on that this LSU team had a chance to be good. Everybody was healthy. Everybody was in-shape, and the 2003 freshman class hit the ground running. Week one featured an easy win over ULM, while Auburn was very publicly shellacked by Southern Cal, 23-0, confirming my suspicions that a great running game coupled with mediocre offensive line and quarterback play wouldn't make those Tigers a contender.
Week two featured a trip to a fairly unknown team for most LSU fans, the Arizona Wildcats.
- As I remember, family members that made this trip were astounded by the utter lack of enthusiasm in Tucson for this Wildcat team. The players had attempted to engineer head coach John Mackovic's ouster the season before and failed, so despite some attempted feint enthusiasm, we kind of had it in mind that this could get out of hand if ‘Zona was close to quitting. Surely that wouldn't be the case in week two though, right?
- Spent this game with some friends over at the Plantation Trace apartment complex on Highland. Beer, pizza and football, not a bad way to spend a Saturday night. As I recall the game was, somewhat oddly, broadcast on TBS, which had Brian Bosworth on the pregame show. He would later provide a very funny moment in the postgame.
- Truthfully, I don't remember much from this game aside from it being a laugher. Kind of feel like I'm watching this one cold.
- And the Tigers took control early with a 15-play 80 yard drive. Matt Mauck was incredibly sharp on the day, completing 10 straight passes after missing on his first, and sticking on in there to Michael Clayton to set up the first touchdown.
- As much as Skyler Green's punt returns remain a memory from 2003, it's easy to forget that Shyrone Carey had the gig early on.
- Arizona's offense in the first quarter of this game: three possessions, 9 plays and 17 yards and no first downs.
- Yes that is Michael Clayton you see on defense -- he cross-trained at safety that offseason due to a lack of depth. Landry and Jessie Daniels would prove good enough to keep him on offense soon hereafter, though.
- You know Coach Mackovic, I'm not so sure berating your quarterback in public is the right tact here, given that, you know, 40 of your players asked your boss to fire you the season before. But what do I know, I'm just a 21-year-old student reporter in Baton Rouge.
- The second quarter was when things went off the rails here, as Clayton and Devery Henderson broke loose on 40-plus yard touchdowns. I distinctly remember thinking "jeez this game was supposed to be tougher than ULM." Even Marcus Randall got in by the half.
- Justin Vincent working at fullback early on, as a way to get him on the field -- you might see some of this wrinkle this season from LSU. Not with Vincent of course.
- And there's Green, showing that he just had more speed than Carey.
- Funny thing about this game, I remember writing after that as well as LSU's offense played, the running game still struggled a bit, and that was a theme we would see for a few more games.
- In the studio postgame, and I remember this well, one of TBS' crew asked the Boz what Arizona would have to do to get over this loss for a game next week against some PAC-10 squad, and he gave a fairly standard, generic "just wipe the slate clean and start over" type of response. When the host mentioned that TBS would be airing said game, Bosworth blurted out "wait we gotta watch those guys again?!!" before rolling his eyes. You just can't see that on ESPN, folks.