The 2003 LSU team came home with a renewed sense of optimism following the beatdown of South Carolina. And it was good timing, as No. 17 Auburn was coming to town for a game that everybody believed would decide the SEC Western Division. Or at least, that's what everybody believed coming into that season.
Auburn, famously, rode a late 2002 surge to a ton of preseason love in 2003, despite losing offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino. The Sporting News selected them as their preseason No. 1, and they weren't much lower in the other publications, mostly on the strength of their offensive backfield, namely star running backs Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown. They returned a veteran offensive line and quarterback, and addition to the top two backs, there was 02 Iron Bowl hero Tre Smith and stud JUCO transfer (and a Louisiana native very vocal on his distaste for LSU) Brandon Jacobs. On defense, star linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarious Thomas were both considered future NFL stars.
But then the season started. Southern Cal humiliated Auburn in their own house in week one, 23-0, and in week two Georgia Tech made things worse with a 17-3 upset in Atlanta. But the Other Tigers seemed to right the ship, winning five in a row, including back-to-back against top-10 Tennessee and Arkansas teams. They had worked their way back into the top 25, and in what would become a weekly refrain, the ESPN crowd, particularly Trev Alberts, felt that LSU had very little chance.
- This was a fun time in the LSU-Auburn rivalry. Saban and Tommy Tuberville never really liked each other, and the memories of the '99 and '01 games in Baton Rouge were still very fresh for people. The fact that these were, at the time, considered to be the West's two best teams certainly helped as well.
- Didn't spend quite as much time at my family's tailgate this week, walking over to hang out with then-Tiger Rag Editor Matt DeVille at the Louisiana Network tailgate. We were both pretty sure that if LSU could get up early, Auburn's tailbacks would be taken out of the game and QB Jason Campbell wasn't good enough to win this game on his own.
- Fun story from this game -- if only I could still find the picture. The BCS Championship crystal football (I forget who was sponsoring it at this point, I want to say AllState) was on a tour of various sites around the country, and it was on the sidelines near the chute in Tiger Stadium. I took a picture of it with Matt, my exact words being at the time "this is the closest we'll probably ever get to a national championship, right?"
- No pregame theatrics for this one, but it didn't take long for LSU to set off some fireworks, with Mauck uncorking a beautiful 64-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson. Jimbo called a variation of the "smash" concept, with Michael Clayton running a shallow square-in while Henderson ran a corner route from the slot. Junior Rosegreen was slowed up enough by Clayton's route that he let Henderson get behind him, and the throw was perfect.
- Auburn seemed to respond with a quick eight-play drive, but the sledding was tough, and it became abundantly clear that the Other Tiger sideline was desperate. Auburn went for it on fourth down at their own 29 and got it, but on the drive's ninth play they went for it again, just on the LSU side of the field, only to have Chad Lavalais knife into the backfield to inhale Williams.
- Press Box Adventures: I very distinctly remember that the publisher of one of the other football mags in Louisiana had given a friend a pressbox pass for this game, and the guy was sitting next to me. Earlier, when the usual "no cheering in the press box" announcement made, the guy muttered something along the lines of "bullshit...whatever" under his breath. When Lavalais stonewalled Williams, he jumped up and shouted in excitement as Matt and I tried to tell him to keep it down. He was immediately escorted out.
- Mauck was really on-point to start this game, hitting six of his first eight, and throwing his second touchdown on a beautifully executed tunnel screen to Clayton.
- Were it not for the scars of 2002, this 14-0 lead might've felt like 28-0.
- Lavalais finished the night with 8 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss including a sack for a 13-yard loss. He wouldn't see single blocking for the rest of the year. Still believe he was the best D-tackle in the country that season.
- Skyler Green's 44-yard punt return sets up a five-yard touchdown run by Alley Broussard, and suddenly things are getting out of hand.
- Rough night for Tre Smith returning punts with two fumbles and a handful of really bad fair-catch decisions, most of which came after he just avoided decapitation by LSU's Adrian Mayes before halftime. He played the rest of this game scared.
- LSU held Auburn to just 50 net yards on the day, 61 for Cadillac Williams individually. What's weird is that I still came out of the game somewhat impressed. Those 61 yards came with virtually no help from his blockers. Making the first guy miss at the backfield to scratch out a short gain was a regular sight.
- In the third quarter, Justin Vincent had three carries for 18, 11 and 33 yards. He finished with 127 yards on 14 carries on the night. Matt Mauck completed 17-28 for 224 yards and three touchdowns with a single interception on a tipped ball. The offense was coming together and becoming a complete unit as November dawned.