And so the 2003 Tigers went into their bye week 5-0 and 2-0 in the SEC. The big win over Georgia felt like a turning point, and the team was ranked in the top 10. I remember feeling like they definitely weren't playing their best football yet, but I don't think most realized that issues with an underachieving offense were quite so prevalent. Gaudy scores can mask that.
Meanwhile, the 2003 Florida Gators had just fallen out of the top 25 following their THIRD loss of the season, a 20-17 home loss to an unranked Ole Miss team. The Gators had already blown a halftime lead to Miami in week two, and were taken down by Tennessee in late September. Ron Zook had taken that job on the hot seat, and at this point his butt was cooked and getting pulled apart by the Gator faithful.
Note: Thanks again to rnolan53 for having all of these highlights uploaded.
- For all the talk about Saban's relationship with the media, weekly press conferences were fairly boring and not that contentious in 2003. The week of the Georgia game he kept spouting the "this is not a big game" nonsense that nobody really bought, but most understood the point he was trying to make, so nobody cared. But this week he was...testy. Every question got prickly response. The obvious guess was that practice wasn't going quite the way he wanted, but whatever, this was a 3-3 team who's marquee win was over Kentucky by all of three points.
- Tiger Rag Editor Matt DeVille had a weekly radio show on Fridays with Richard Condon, and I remember him talking QUITE a bit about how bad this Florida team. "Florida is POOO" were his exact words, if I recall correctly. I definitely laughed a lot. There was a bit of a "I mean...this is still Florida" thought in the back of my mind, but you have to understand that public opinion on the Gators was probably as low as I've ever seen it.
- Skyler Green took over punt return duties officially around this time, because Shyrone Carey's role in the offense was increasing, and it seemed like the smart thing to do. He'd always looked really good in the role, because he had a bit more speed than Shy. And when he brought that punt back three minutes in, everything seemed to be going according to plan...
- Chris Leake did not blink in this one though, and immediately led a 13-play, 80-yard drive to match the score with the 03 defense's Kryptonite, covering backs out of the backfield. As great as this defense was along the lines and in the secondary, Lionel Turner just was not great in coverage (something Saban really depends on from his mike linebackers, especially down the middle of the field). Wasn't the last time this play would bite the Tigers on the ass.
- A mistake by Matt Mauck and suddenly Florida's got quite a bit of momentum going here. Only netted a field goal, but LSU just simply wasn't moving the ball. And Florida was.
- I actually remember this moment really well, and as DeShawn Wynn dove to the goal-line and the ball popped out right to Adrian Mayes, I scribbled down "wow what a gift" on my notepad (Easterbrook'd). Still, no offense.
- Florida's offense was just pesky in this game. No big plays, just a bunch of little ones strung together. And God, did Leake show some promise at this time. Poise out the wazzoo, and all while getting sacked six times.
- 2:50 mark you see one of the major storylines of this game - PENALTIES. Thirteen of ‘em for 99 yards.
- The fumble by Devery Henderson marked the end. Just 287 yards of offense for the Tigers, and it really felt like the coaching staff panicked a bit early on. The offensive line clearly didn't have its "A" game, but the run was all but completely abandoned in the second half, which made things predictable. Mauck was a capable passer but he was always at his best with a running game to work off of, and without it defenses knew how to play him. Yeah, the run game was struggling (and Joseph Addai and Shyrone Carey would both suffer injuries during the game), but the score was never so far out of reach as to necessitate such a shift.
- This was one of the opposing locker room postgames that I remember incredibly well. On the way down, I overheard a local radio host note that he couldn't believe he just watched Ron Zook outcoach Nick Saban. And my first thought was "no way...Florida was just more dialed in for this one." But it gave me some ideas as I headed to the Gator's side of the field.
- Florida allowed coordinators to meet with reporters, so it was great to pick Charlie Strong's brain a bit. Turns out after getting completely shredded by Eli Manning, Strong had worked to develop a couple of new coverage disguises on the fly, and they worked really really well. Mauck later confirmed that more than once the defense he saw when he hit his back foot looked nothing like he expected.
- Meanwhile, the Gator offensive staff knew that if Leake could simply hold on in the face of LSU's pressure, the big plays could be available on the blitz reads. It was a great gameplan.
- My other takeaway from this game: Channing Crowder is every bit as scary up close as you think, and he'd just had some sort of minor surgery that week and wasn't expected to play.
- And there was the 2003 Tigers' first blemish of the year. It was a pretty low feeling. Yeah, I don't remember really thinking about a national championship yet, but in terms of the SEC, Auburn had just gotten rolling after that 0-2 start, and won back-to-back games over ranked Tennessee and Arkansas teams. Nothing was settled yet, and there was a lot of football still to be played. LSU's offense, now with the top two backs hobbled, was going to have to step up, particularly the offensive line, which was badly underachieving at this point.