Well, it's that time of year again. Baseball season is officially over, and with that, it's time to start counting the weeks until the start of football season with our annual Wednesday WayBack series. Last year, we wrapped up the 2003 season with the Tigers' 21-14 victory in the 2004 Sugar Bowl, capturing LSU's first national championship 45 years.
Spring of 2004 was a wild couple of months. My final semester as an LSU student. I would graduate that May (guh...10 years ago now...), but in between there was lots of parties, nights at Fred's, writing, baseball games...a couple classes mixed in. Most importantly, a job search that, luckily, was successful. In June I began my first job as the sports editor of the Bogalusa Daily News. I often talk about the two years spent there as my "exile period," but it was an important time in my life. I learned a lot about the newspaper business, the working world, the game of football and life in general. I may joke about those days a lot, but there are still a lot of fond memories.
As you could imagine, it was a pretty wild time to be a Tiger fan. Nick Saban came as close to running the state as any LSU coach could come. The program wrapped up another stellar recruiting class that would feature four- and five-star talents like Glenn Dorsey, Early Doucet, Craig Steltz, Luke Sanders, Xavier Carter, Marlon Favorite and Herman Johnson. It was a class I was very up close with thanks to my then-gig with Tiger Rag, as I had to fill in for Sonny Shipp for a few months as the lead recruiting analyst.
LSU would be replacing a lot as the 2004 season dawned. Quarterback Matt Mauck and both starting receivers, All-American defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and defensive end Marquise Hill. Still, there was a lot coming back as well: budding superstar tailback Justin Vincent as part of a loaded running back corps, the nation's best secondary led by All-Americans Corey Webster and LaRon Landry, explosive multi-purpose star Skyler Green, senior quarterback Marcus Randall and a pair of incredibly highly touted redshirt freshmen, Jamarcus Russell & Matt Flynn, pushing him for playing time. USC was the presumptive preseason No. 1, and expected to win the BCS National Title they had failed capture the previous season, but LSU was still in the top five and expected to compete with Georgia for another SEC title.
Through the fluke of both teams having a hole on their schedule, LSU would open 2004 with a cross-country visit from the Oregon State Beavers. Head coach Mike Riley, one of the few coaches from this series still at his school currently, was in his second second season at OSU (he originally coached them from 1997-98 before leaving to become a bullet point on Ryan Leaf's "Greatest NFL Bust of All Time" resume). The Beavers were coming off an 8-5 year in 2003, but weren't expected to be a serious Pac 10 contender, or more than just a cursory challenge for the defending national champions.
- One of the random memories of this game was that shortly before kickoff, right as fans were piling into the stadium, there was a freak thunderstorm that absolutely drenched the field. It was enough to delay the start of the game for a few hours, and to chase my parents and younger brother out. As I recall there are a couple of stories of streakers, etc...trying to break up the monotony of the delay.
- Your humble correspondent spent the Saturday in what would become my typical routine in my Bogalusa days. After a Friday night at a high school football game, I would wake up and head into the office, working the phones to call the other high schools in the coverage area to get recaps and box scores prepared and stories written. I would get the Sunday sports section laid out with all of the requisite local stories and relevant national wire stories, then head home. I'd return that evening to put drop in the Associated Press's recap of the LSU game and then send it all to press.
On this day, I started out at my apartment for the game, but upon the delay headed back to the newsroom to watch the game there and be ready to finish off the Sunday edition.
*Ed. Note: Thanks to Palmeroids for having this version of the highlights, which includes all of Serna's misses.*
- How's that for a start? A fumbled kickoff by said returning All-American return guy.
- The Beavers shrugged off a couple of early penalties to turn that fumble into a touchdown drive. Fun fact: the offensive coordinator of this squad was current Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. He did a fantastic job of using motion and formation shifts to play hell with Nick Saban's defense, which relies on a lot of pre-snap checks. It's a tactic that still works today, and the main reason he's worked so hard to try and limit hurry-up/no-huddle offenses with rules.
- Shank! Kicker Alexis Serna misses the extra point. Huh. Well you don't see that often, do you?
- I don't know that anybody really though LSU had much of a chance to lose that game, but when Randall threw a horrible interception on the second play from scrimmage, it suddenly began to dawn on me that the Tigers might not be quite as focused as we'd like. Although the defense would save things with by picking off Oregon State's Derek Anderson in the endzone.
- Ball security would be an issue all game for both teams with four combined turnovers in the first quarter alone, plus another fumbled punt that OSU recovered themselves. Shortly after that, true freshmen Glenn Dorsey announced his presence to Tiger fans everywhere by recovering a fumble at the Beaver 25. LSU seemed to be in business.
- Except that the best the offense could do was muddle for all of two yards before Chris Jackson shanked a 41-yard field goal attempt. Badly.
- Both offenses continued to slop things out before a big Marcus Spears sack forced another fumble that he recovered himself.
- There's the Justin Vincent we all expected to see! Surely he's about to get going after that 31-yard scamper, right?
- Another Jackson shank and a big run by OSU's Dwight Wright set up a 40-yard kick by Serna that helped the Beavers get into halftime up 9-0. It managed to be a half in which neither team totally looked like it deserved to be leading really.
- I might not have been at many fall practices, but I still had friends in the media that were, and it's important to remember that while everybody knew Jamarcus Russell would see the field eventually in 2004, there was a lot of talk that this was "Marcus Randall's team," and that people felt he'd be steady enough to hold down the starting job. So when Mike Gottfried started bringing up Russell coming in after the half, it was a bit of a surprise. But then so was LSU having all of 39 passing yards in the first half.
- Sure enough, there was the 6-5 Russell. Not that he'd have much of an impact for a few series. Both teams combined for -4 yards on the first five series of the third quarter.
- And then boom, there it is. Nine plays, 79 yards as Russell hits a couple of strikes to Dwayne Bowe and Joseph Addai before finding Green on a beautiful corner route for six.
- But Anderson responded with a nine-play drive of his own. Only Serna missed another PAT, banging it off the same upright even. Weird, huh?
- The offenses just kept slopping it up, combining for 17 yards on the next five respective possessions. Meanwhile, the fourth quarter is just ticking away.
- An injury would take Russell out for a few plays, but when he returned and missed a very, very open Green on that attempted one-handed flip, I was starting to think this one might be lost.
- But a defensive stand got the ball back, and two huge passes to Dwayne Bowe and a two-point conversion tied things up in the final two minutes. Is it weird that this finish still seems kind of tame now in retrospect?
- In overtime, a big Oregon State third-down penalty got LSU inside the 10, and when Russell's leg injury took him out again, Randall stepped in to play the hero on one hell of a six-yard quarterback draw. Little did we know how much this game would prove to be a microcosm of the coming season, with both quarterbacks being needed to play their roles at different times. Russell finished just 9-for-26 on the night, but his completions netted 145 yards and two touchdowns, compared to the 66 yards that Randall picked up on 7-of-18 passing.
- The Beavers showed the guts we've come to associate them with in subsequent seasons under Riley. Anderson throws an absolute strike on fourth down to tight end Joe Newton. Touchdown, and we're about to head to a second overtime...
- ...only Serna sent his third extra point wide right. I've never seen anything like it, before or since. Three missed extra points. As much as I was screaming and dancing around the newsroom, you couldn't help but watch the poor kid crumple to that soggy turf in a screaming fit and feel for the guy.
- As a postscript to this ending, Serna would go on to become one of the best kickers in Oregon State history, and win the Groza Award in 2005. A number of LSU fans would send him fan mail in the coming years, encouraging him to keep working hard and move past that night in Baton Rouge -- I even remember Serna talking about it in an interview on College Gameday one morning. I know it's easy to be gracious to the kicker that just shanked your team to victory, but I always thought that was a nice story.