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Wednesday WayBack: The 2004 Sugar Bowl

No. 2 LSU 21, No. 1 Oklahoma 14

Brian Bahr, Getty Images Sport

LSU. In the national championship game.

In the Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans.

In December of 2003, it was still a bit of a novelty. Hell, for your intrepid student reporter, it almost felt like a hallucination.

Oddly, another thing we've gotten used to by now, is controversy surrounding it.

Ultimately, Oklahoma was simply too good. The 2003 Sooners absolutely decimated a relatively weak schedule. They started off at No. 1 and rattled off 12 straight wins, topping 30 11 times, and even the 50-point barrier seven times. They dominated both polls and had the highest BCS formula ranking by far, so when Kansas State wiped the floor with them in the Big 12 Championship Game, it just didn't matter. There was no chance of them falling outside of the top two.

Who would play them, not surprisingly, was the subject of much debate. Southern California opened the season with a 23-0 pasting of a top-10 Auburn squad and vaulted to the top five. A triple-overtime loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Cal Golden Bears caused them to stumble to 10, but they rattled off nine straight, with nobody getting within 20 points of them. Head coach Pete Carroll was a media darling, and the Trojans were led by star players like Matt Leinart, Mike Williams, Will Poole and Shaun Cody, along with future star freshmen like Reggie Bush and Lendale White. The problem was, while LSU faced four top-25 teams in the regular season and capped it with a No. 5 Georgia in the SEC title game, USC faced just two, and ended the season with a route of an unranked Oregon State squad.

That last weekend was enough to push the Tigers into the title game. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media, which hated the BCS anyway, backed the established, traditional power, and made it pretty clear that any sort of Rose Bowl victory would earn the Trojans a share of the national title. And of course, they throttled a good, but not great, Michigan team 28-14 (in one of the most lopsided 14-point wins I've ever seen). It was clear that much debate would be waiting for whichever team won in the Superdome.

Not surprisingly, Oklahoma was fairly heavily favored. They had the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jason White and a host of other stars: wide receiver Mark Clayton, offensive tackle Jammal Brown (eventually a No. 1 pick by the Saints), defensive linemen Tommie Harris and Dan Cody, linebacker Teddy Lehman, and cornerbacks Derrick Strait -- who won the Thorpe and Nagurski awards -- and Antonio Perkins, who was an All-American punt returner. All in all, 11 Sooners received postseason honors, be them All-Big 12 or All-American.

There weren't a lot of people taking the Tigers.

The Setting:

  • Tiger Rag was able to score enough press passes for just about all of the staff to make it, with us spending some time in New Orleans that week to pick up materials and scope out the scene. I was at home in Laplace on semester break, so it wasn't difficult. I very distinctly remember Oklahoma's practices being very business-like, to the point of nonchalance. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had recently taken the Arizona head coaching job, and spent most of the period we saw on the phone. Frankly, his players looked like a group that thought school was out. LSU seemed more focused, but when long-snapper Steve Damen and Shyrone Carey wound up suspended for a violation of team rules, it certainly gave you pause.
  • Gameday my family and I wound up at the corner of Loyola and Poydras, cooking jambalaya for a huge tailgating group that had rented out a parking lot. I don't remember a ton of the tailgate, other than being very nervous and eventually changing into the suit when it was time to enter the Dome. Silly, maybe, but when you're 21 years old and hoping to break into the sportswriting business, you think about things like dressing for success. I'm pretty sure I saw Jay Mariotti in jeans and a sweatshirt in the press box. So yeah, I learned something that day.

The Game:

  • Oklahoma traveled really well for this game, because they had known they would be here for months. But LSU fans dominated the secondary market, and still had a firm majority in the Dome.
  • Analogy to be left here...Boomer Sooner: Rocky Top.
  • Matt "Mouk"...and I swear to God, Danielson almost seemed to correct ol' Brent a few times. Still, "you're looking live!" gets me every time.
  • And there it is, the run that poured a thousand Jaeger-bombs. LSU runs a zone play to the right and the Sooners safety blitz. Justin Vincent breaks a tackle and pops loose for 64 yards on the first play. In the press box, my exact thoughts might've been something like "holy shit we might have us a game here..."
  • And then things are a bit dashed when Mauck fumbles a snap near the goal-line. It's easy to remember Vincent's big opening run, but the fact that the drive was ultimately fruitless seems lost to time.
  • Only the Heisman winner's first pass would be intercepted by LSU's own All American, Corey Webster, on a relatively easy play you could envision as soon as the ball left White's hand. LSU flashed a man-to-man blitz and bailed out of it. White and his receiver audibled to a deep fade route, but Jack Hunt was over the top to help cut off the route and set up an easy catch for Webster. This strategy would be the major determinant of Oklahoma's struggles.
  • And then Skyler Green makes the touchdown back up on a 24-yard speed sweep, set up with some huge blocks on the edge by Joseph Addai and Michael Clayton. 7-0, LSU.
  • Fun thing about this Oklahoma offense. Good as it was, it really didn't run the ball well (that changed next season when a freshman named Adrian Peterson came to town). I can't say I was supremely confident in the matchup (what can I say, the hype was convincing), but I knew this much. The Sooners had made most of their big plays with White having all day to throw deep to his speedy, if undersized receivers like Mark Clayton. I was sure that a) LSU would be able to put some pressure on White, and b) Webster and Travis Daniels would be able to push around the OU wideouts.
  • Saban had a fantastic gameplan. LSU rolled the corners up and flashed man-to-man, zero or cover-one blitzes, but bailed out into different zone pressures. Oklahoma, expecting single coverage, called a lot of two- and three-receiver patterns with heavier protections. Only they had no idea where the rush was coming from, while White was getting a completely different coverage look from his pre-snap read. The confusion helped LSU rack up nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage on the night, including five sacks.
  • Hey look, an early version of the shield punt formation, and with a new deep snapper. What could go wrong?
  • Oklahoma ties things up, and I remember REALLY wanting a drink at that moment.
  • But LSU responded with an 80-yard drive. Mauck found ways to keep the chains moving, and Vincent squirted through another tackle to spring 18 yards for six. In the process he not only topped 100 yards for the game, he broke LSU's freshman season rushing record and was elected king of Bogies.
  • I definitely remember thinking here "if we can just get this lead to 14, there's no way they can score that many on us."
  • As the second half opened, OU had the ball, but it was clear that White still didn't have a clue. On the second play, the zone-blitz caught him again as White dropped to throw a quick slant, only to find Marcus Spears standing right in the throwing lane. The ex-basketball player housed the pick, and I recall immediately telling my editor Matt DeVille "that's it, the route is on." Because clearly I hadn't learned my lesson from the last time one of us had said that.
  • LSU strings together another long drive inside the Sooner 10, and I'm sure the final nail is about to go in. But the OU defense held, and then a combination of a holding penalty and a personal foul pushed the kick all the way back to the 35-yard line.
  • A fake field goal on fourth and 35 is completely stupid 99 percent of the time, but here it's slightly more calculated. Oklahoma would almost certainly be going for the block, meaning that the fake would likely be wide open, and while the chances that it would get endzone were slim, the risk is ultimately just a few yards, because a touchback on a punt still gives them the ball at the 20. And David Jones nearly got in.
  • But LSU's offense went completely cold in the fourth quarter, and a brutal Mauck interception put the Sooners in business at the LSU 31. Oklahoma's stars were getting going, with White finding Mark Clayton on a huge 4th-and-10 to set up a short touchdown. And there was still more than 10 minutes left in the game.
  • The Tiger offense didn't gain another first down the rest of the game, but the defense just would not give in, holding the Sooners on downs on one last drive deep into LSU territory.
  • Heart in throat, a Lionel Turner sack, a Donnie Jones punt, and LSU won, 21-14. 13-1, BCS national champions. I didn't cry, but I'm pretty sure my hands were shaking.
  • In the OU postgame presser, the players, to a man, all seemed completely shocked at what they had seen. 152 yards of total offense, and 2.2 yards per play. Oklahoma had nearly averaged 150 yards a quarter that season.
  • Underrated aspect of the postgame here -- former USC All-American Lynn Swann the epitome of class and doing his job with almost refreshing impartiality. Not a mention on the controversy or of the huge victory his former team had won days earlier. There'd be plenty of that from the mainstream punditry, many of whom took it for all but a certainty that the Mighty Trojans would've easily beaten either Sugar Bowl participant. In fact, somewhere along the line, the narrative became that LSU, somehow, was the unworthy interloper in this scenario. The party crasher that had gotten in the way of the old money showdown. The dirty, unglamorous SEC team that had robbed USC of its rightful place as undisputed champion.

    This mentality boggles my mind even now, though it's funny to think of how unlikely it would be these days. LSU played the toughest schedule of the three and consistently stepped up their game as the stakes increased. If anything, Oklahoma was the undeserving team in this game, but the punditry had spent too many weeks establishing that BEST TEAM EVA narrative, and the BCS was held hostage to it when things fell apart. That, is what USC couldn't overcome. We'll never know who would've won between the Tigers and the Trojans, but I know this much. The Tigers had the best defense in the country, one that had held down some of the best quarterbacks in the country, including the Heisman winner AND the future No. 1 draft choice (Eli Manning). It would've been one hell of a game.

And that brings us to end of our WayBack series for this summer. Next week is gameweek y'all. Is it a sign that we wrap up on a national championship? I know it is gonna be a whole hell of a lot of fun finding out.