Offseason projects are fun. You can only kick around so many speculative pieces on the season that is 8 months away from game 1 and even 5 months away from freshmen reporting and fall camp. Sure, National Signing Day happened and Spring Practice will happen and the always disappointing Spring Game, but we’re a long ways away from real meat. So the offseason is good time to do a history check. A couple years ago, Poseur and I embarked on picking the ATVS All-Time LSU team.
This year, we hop into the DeLorean to pick the Greatest Game from Every Season™.
First, we set some parameters. We will start in 1958. Why? Three great reasons:
- LSU’s first national title
- Widely considered the dawn of modern college football
- A nice, round number of games
What’s our criteria? We have none, expressly. Each week we will present 4 total seasons and thus, 4 total games. Poseur and I have judiciously split the seasons so each writer can tackle games from every era in this 60-year-period. How they are presented will be up to the writer. You might get some Dietzel and Cholly Mac together; you might get a little Curley and a little Saban, or you might get a heaping helping of Les Miles.
These are the Greatest Games of Every LSU Season.
Naturally, we have to start in the season that christened LSU football. Prior to 1958, LSU was routinely a program on the brink. They made 4 Sugar Bowls (3 under Bernie Moore and 1 under Gaynell Tinsley), but they lost them all. Outside of a nice run in the early and mid 30’s, LSU’s success swung wildly from quality season to poor one as they sought to establish themselves as one of college football’s blue bloods.
The path to the ‘58 Championship is a meandering one, complete with LSU passing on a young upstart HC at Miami (OH)... named Ara Parseghian... to hire their eventual head coach Paul Dietzel. Dietzel’s career at LSU started inauspiciously. Over 30 players funneled out of the program in the offseason between ‘54 and ‘55, leaving Dietzel with a roster of just 43 total players. Despite the lack of on-field success, Dietzel received a new contract after his inaugural 3-win campaign in 1955. Fans came out in droves, improving attendance by nearly 100,000 attendees, despite playing one fewer home game.
Despite the dazzling promise of a Jimmy Taylor/Billy Cannon duo, Dietzel’s LSU notched a 5-5 season in 1957. LSU won just 11 games in his first three seasons, not exactly a team with earmarkers for a National Title run, particularly considering they returned only 15 letterman and three seniors from a team that only won 5 games in ‘57. The ‘58 Tigers were voted to a 9th place finish in the SEC in the preseason.
But Dietzel felt optimistic. He instituted a Wing-T offense that sought to take advantage of LSU’s prodigious speed. LSU lacked depth in the early years of Dietzel and never fielded the biggest, strongest units in college football, instead relying on superior speed and athleticism. This also drove Dietzel to devise his spectacular 3-platoon system, and birthed the now famous “Chinese Bandits.”
This backdrop of inconsistency and innovation paved the way for the ‘58 season. So how do you pick the best game in that season? You pick the game that defined LSU as great in the season that defined them as a amongst the nation’s powers.
The greatest game in 1958: Florida.
LSU’s season started on a high note beating Rice (then a major power in the old Southwest Conference, including beating Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in ‘54). The game wound up uneventful, though, as LSU dominated from bell-to-bell. In week 2 they beat a very game but outmatched Alabama team, in year one of Bear Bryant. This propelled LSU up to #15 nationally. The schedule lightened the next three weeks, vs. Hardin-Simmons, Miami (FL) (not then the Miami of the 80s, 90s and early aughts), and Kentucky. LSU won each decisively, climbing all the way to no. 3 nationally. Since the program’s inception they had never captured a no. 1 ranking in the AP. A matchup with Florida offered that promise.
“Warm up that toe, Davis.”
Florida featured a deep and powerful team that had traveled out to Los Angeles and taken a victory from UCLA. At 2-1-1, Florida wasn’t a presumptive favorite to win the SEC, but the type of team that could definitely beat you in any given week. Dietzel, expecting the game to be tight knit, approach FB-K Tommy Davis during pre-game warm-ups to “warm up that toe, Davis.” It’s worth noting that Dietzel had failed to beat Florida in each of his first three seasons in Baton Rouge. Florida was bigger and they were more experienced. LSU’s strategy to deploy units in waves didn’t seem as advantageous against a team that played 46 players* against Tulane earlier in the year.
*Reminder that strict substitution rules of this era prohibited the expansive substitution patterns of today’s game.
Before beating Kentucky, Dietzel expressed concern for playing Florida. He knew the players would be motivated against Kentucky, who brought a spirited performance against SEC-favorite Auburn, as well as Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who they were deeply familiar.
Both teams battled closely, with LSU taking a TD lead in the second quarter after Billy Cannon scored on a 4th and goal from 1, plowing over All-American tackle Val Heckman on the way. LSU held that lead until the 4th quarter. Trying to flip field position, LSU opted to quick kick with Cannon. He shanked the kick, giving Florida the ball on the 25. Cannon giveth and he taketh away.
In short order, back-up QB Mickey Ellenburg threw a 14-yard TD to Perry McGriff and Florida hit the XP to knot the game at 7-7. LSU took the ball back but were forced to punt. Florida took control and began to drive deep into LSU territory. As the Gators threatened, Cannon intercepted a pass on the LSU 18, fought off a prospective tackler with one hand and lateraled the ball to Red Hendrix, who returned the ball to the LSU 40. But again, LSU’s offense disappointed, going three and out. As it seemed the game was destined to conclude in a tie, LSU’s vaunted defense forced a quick Florida punt, which placed LSU at their Gators’ 43. When in doubt, turn to Billy Cannon.
Dietzel force-fed his stallion, who notched four carries for 20 yards to place LSU on 19 with just 2:59 remaining. Dietzel’s premonitions of a close contest were unfolding in real life, right down to his memorable, “warm up that toe, Davis,” line in the pre-game. Davis calmly took the field and made the kick. The crowd went bonanza. Florida notched more first downs and more total yards. But LSU won the game.
By Monday morning, LSU fans were anxious to know if their beloved Tigers would be voted no. 1 in the AP. Both Army and Ohio State, the previous week’s no. 1 and no. 2, notched ties over the weekend. The media bought in, naming LSU to their first ever no. 1 ranking.
This is a game that brought a little bit of everything to the table. There were more premium games on the schedule that season, games with more hype, games against better teams and games with perhaps more importance. But this game, in week 6, really signified LSU’s transition into a college football powerhouse. No longer the team perpetually on the cusp, it showed Dietzel could get over the UF hump and that LSU could take down a team that even presented a matchup nightmare. It’s a statement game for a program that so desperately needed one. It’s a game that said LSU was here to stay.
26 - 6 vs. Rice
13 - 3 @ Alabama
14- 0 vs. #6 Ole Miss
7 - 6 @ #20 Mississippi State
The Rice game was significant at the time, but LSU so thoroughly dominating it made it easy to dismiss as the best game of the season. Bama I eliminated due to their lack of quality and a double-digit margin that mostly stood up throughout the game. State game looks tremendous on the scoreboard, but all my research on the game suggest it was severely inhibited by rain, including “standing in puddles up to their ankles in spots”. This was an ugly, sloppy game, in which LSU probably got out played but held on for victory. Not exactly “greatest games” material.
There were really only two choices. Ole Miss was the biggest, most hyped game of the season and ostensibly for the SEC Championship. Like Florida, Dietzel had yet to notch a win over them. They were LSU’s hated rival at the time and a legitimate national power in their own right. AND it was on Halloween. It’s a narrow margin, but LSU won decisively, which removes the drama aspect that truly makes a great game. Additionally, LSU’s most legendary single play actually occurred the next season, which shouldn’t be fair but does feel like it overshadows this game. I couldn’t find fault for anyone that would pick this one, though.
What’s the greatest game in 1958?
This poll is closed
If ‘58 was the beginning of an era in LSU football, 2016 is the end of one. After 10 seasons, the greatest coach in LSU history fielded what many believed to be one of the finest teams of his tenure. Lead by the stellar 2014 signing class of Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Brandon Harris, Jamal Adams and the like, it was to be the year of delivered promises. Miles underwent a tumultuous conclusion to the 2015 season, which saw him triumphantly carried off the field to a job-saving applause session smack in the grumpy faces of his boss who seemed all-too-eager to run him off since his arrival in Baton Rouge. Miles spent the offseason making promises of turning over a new leaf offensively to bring the program in a new direction going forward. He then retained his friend and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in the first sign of not genuinely delivering on those lofty promises.
LSU entered 2016 with a boatload of questions, most of which people expected to be answered by another resounding series of Leonard Fournette truck-stick runs. Instead, Fournette turned an ankle that left him hampered both heading into the season and throughout most of the rest of the way.
The season started poorly with an opening weekend loss to Wisconsin, but LSU found new life in back-up QB Danny Etling, who was inserted the following week after Brandon Harris played ineffectively against Jacksonville State. Etling took over the starting gig as LSU headed into its first conference game at home vs. Mississippi State.
The Greatest Game in 2016: Mississippi State
Historically, State has hardly been a road bump for LSU, but they were able to notch a victory in Baton Rouge during the Dak Prescott era, and almost backed it up with another win the following season in Starkville. As far as Dan Mullen era Mississippi State teams, the 2016 squad wasn’t particularly distinguishable. QB Nick Fitzgerald was still trying to find his way and they lost the season opener to South Alabama.
Thus, when LSU roared out to a 20-point lead midway through the 2nd quarter, LSU fans were on the good end of that bottle of bourbon from the earlier tailgates. Suddenly, LSU had an offense... LSU had a... quarterback? Could it be that a shocking week 1 loss rattled Miles right into reality?
State got some points back late in the 2nd quarter, by way of a FG, but LSU didn’t ease up, adding three more of their own before the stanza closed. Sitting at 23-3 at the half, this seemed destined to go the way of many an LSU/Mississippi State game before.
State started the 2nd half with the ball and with an explosive play, netting 32 yards on their first snap, only to gain 5 more yards on their next three plays and punt. LSU followed that act up with a 3 and out of their own and State’s meticulous comeback was on.
12 plays, 40 yards and nearly 6 minutes later, State added three points. Midway through the 3rd quarter, eating significant time to cut the lead to still 17 seemed inconsequential, but it evidently marked that State was very much alive and not giving up, despite the deficit.
On LSU’s next drive, Leonard Fournette fumbles. State can’t make anything of it, despite running 7 plays and burning three minutes, they gained only 15 yards of field position, before giving it back to LSU. Who then, promptly, went 3 and out and punted back to State. Not ones to be one-upped, State moved the ball all of 1 yard on their own 3 and out and punted it back to LSU to begin the 4th quarter.
“It’s just a walk in the park at that point.”
LSU put together a drive. Fournette hit runs of 2, 8 and 14 before Etling found Travin Dural for 8 more. Guice got in on the action and more Fournette, before Etling found Chark and Dupre for double-digit gains each. On 3rd and 5, Guice ran a yard shy, leaving LSU on the State 34 staring at 4th and 1 with a shaky kicker. Miles pulled out the gambler’s hat and sensed the opportunity to go for the kill shot here and now. He turned to his best player. Fournette lined up and is stuffed in the hole, where he promptly fumbles. After the game, Miles said if Fournette gets that yard, “it’s just a walk in the park at that point.”
This time, State makes good on it. LSU pushed the Bulldogs to 4th and 4, Mullen brings in his back-up QB, Damian Williams, after Nick Fitzgerald’s helmet came off on the previous play. Though Mullen tinkered with a 2-QB system earlier in the season, vs. LSU he stuck it out with Nick Fitzgerald. Williams, predominantly a running QB, enters the game and promptly completes a 24-yard pass to convert. Mullen sticks with him and he completes the drive. In just under 3 minutes, State traveled 66 yards in 9 plays for their first TD of the game. State cut the lead to 10, but it still seemed a safe margin with only 4:10 left to go in the game.
Riding the momentum, Mullen goes for the onside kick and the Bulldogs recover. Two plays later, the Bulldogs cash in again. Suddenly the lead is cut to 3. The impossible seems realistic. LSU is in familiar position of many games under Miles where they took their foot off the gas and the opponent hung around just long enough to make things interesting in the end. With only 3:30 minutes to go, LSU needed a successful drive to ice the game. They couldn’t afford to go 3 and out and give State the ball back. Which is, of course, exactly what they did. Thankfully, Josh Growden flipped the field with a 61-yard punt, placing Mississippi State on their own 23 with only 2:03 to go.
State gained 2 yards on a short run on 1st down. On 2nd down, Williams turned to WR Donald Gray, but the pass was broken up by Donte Jackson. On 3rd, Williams again tried for Gray, but this time it sailed incomplete. Backed deep into their own territory, State went for on 4th and 8 with the game on the line. Finally, LSU’s defense delivered with Arden Key bringing a monumental strip sack, with Davon Godchaux recovering the fumble. Game over.
So why this game? Because it’s Les Miles’ last stand.
13 - 18 @ no. 18 Auburn
38 - 21 vs. no. 21 Ole Miss
0 - 10 vs. no. 1 Alabama
29 - 9 vs. no. 15 Louisville
One of the strangest seasons of my lifetime. LSU was left for dead after Wisconsin, seemingly revived after the insertion of Etling and then dead for good after Auburn and suddenly a new team after firing Les.
There’s not a single great game in this season. The Auburn game was marred with bad play and ended with a botched referee decision, but it certainly ranks for drama. Ole Miss was lacking any drama but ranks solely for Fournette greatness. Alabama game held high tension and felt like a slugfest but one we knew LSU would inevitably lose. Louisville was just an utter domination of LSU over the Heisman trophy winner.
What’s the greatest game in 2016?
This poll is closed