Cholly Mac’s staggering consistency maddened the fan base. The lows were rarely enough to ignite a furor, and the highs were never quite to the level to make him beyond reproach, Nick Saban style. McClendon was, for the bulk of his 18 years in Baton Rouge... good. Not great, but definitely good. 1970 may well have been the peak of the McClendon era. Though it ended in disappointment with a loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl (I feel like I’ve heard this one before...), it would be the only season LSU would win the SEC in his tenure. Can you imagine a coach remaining employed in the SEC today while only winning the conference once in nearly 2 decades?
That 1970 team lost by 2 to Texas A&M, 3 to Notre Dame (eventual no. 2 in the nation) and 5 to Nebraska (the National Champions). Talk about heartbreak. From that 1970 team, the only star departing would be All-American LB Mike Anderson. Returning was DB Tommy Casanova, DT Ronnie Estay, QB Bert Jones, WR Andy Hamilton and RB Art Cantrelle. Casanova would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated ahead of the season. High hopes abounded in Baton Rouge. But all eyes were focused on one game in particular. That would turn out to be the greatest game of the season.
The Greatest Game of 1971: Notre Dame
LSU had played Notre Dame to a near draw in 1970, losing just 3-0 in South Bend. The Tigers limited an explosive Notre Dame offense, lead by Joe Theismann, to just 227 yards, over 300 yards beneath their average. The only points on the day would come on a 24-yard field goal one play after Casanova dropped an INT. LSU in all likelihood ended Joe Theismann’s Heisman’s hopes, but it wasn’t enough to pull off the road win.
The rematch garnered all attention. LSU featured a loaded schedule in ‘71, inviting powerhouse Colorado in the season opener, as well as welcoming Alabama and Notre Dame. Colorado were coming off a disappointing 1970, capped by a bowl loss to Greenie (don’t ever lose to Greenie), but they still featured an athletic and talented team. Though unranked, they were precisely the type of team that LSU shouldn’t overlook. Which is exactly what they did.
RB Charlie Davis racked up 174 rushing yards, a record vs. LSU at the time, as LSU broke in a new defensive front, returning only Estay. The Buffaloes would start LSU’s season off on a porous note, coming into Baton Rouge and walking out with a 31-21 victory. LSU played so poorly, McClendon benched QB Bert Jones for Paul Lyons, who had played DB in 1970. McClendon said it was the QB who could best move the team, what he meant was the QB who could best run the option.
It proved wise, as LSU would score 35+ points in the next 4 games, and LSU seemed to be hitting their stride. They worked their way back up to no. 12 nationally and won a hard fought game over a very tough Kentucky, 17-13. Then the wheels came off. Traveling to Jackson, MS for their annual matchup with Ole Miss, LSU were heavy favorites over a Rebels squad swimming in athletic department drama. Legendary coach John Vaught had stepped aside due to medical issues, but his chosen successor was passed over by Bruiser Kinard, who anointed his brother to HC on the way to becoming Athletic Director himself. LSU obliterated the Rebels in 1970, winning 61-17 in what was then the most lopsided defeat in series history. So the Rebels welcomed LSU to Jackson with revenge on the mind, despite being hefty underdogs.
Ole Miss jumped out to a 21-0 lead and despite a furious rally by LSU, it proved too much to be overcome. The Rebels would hold on, 24-22. The next week LSU welcomed no. 4 Alabama to town. After a pair of mediocre seasons in Tuscaloosa, Bryant had the Crimson Tide humming with their new Wishbone offense. In a competitive game, Alabama played mistake free and beat LSU 14-7.
The next week, LSU would travel back to Jackson, this time to face Mississippi State, who they would easily dispatch of, 28-3. It was finally time for the game everyone had been waiting for since the preseason.
Notre Dame showed up in Baton Rouge with only one loss, to USC, and ranked no. 2 nationally. Still, LSU were favorites in the game. In a rare treat, LSU would get a nationally televised game. Excitement flowed in Baton Rouge equal to games against the Tigers biggest rival: Ole Miss. This was the game everyone had been waiting for. The chant “Geaux to Hell, Notre Dame!” was born, riffing on the chant typically reserved for their rival Rebels.
Before the game, McClendon faced an important decision, electing to go back to QB Bert Jones. The LSU offense struck fast, when Jones found his cousin, WR Andy Hamilton, for a 36-yard TD. Notre Dame wouldn’t register a single passing yard in the 1st quarter.
Late in the 2nd quarter, DB Warren Capone intercepted the ball near midfield, and returned it 26 yards to the Irish 32. On the next play, Bert Jones would find Hamilton again, for a 32-yard strike, giving LSU a 14-0 lead nearing the end of the half. The Irish’s final possession of the half proved fruitless. The scoreboard favored LSU, though each team had 1 TO and LSU struggled to gain any room on the ground, notching just 38 yards on 23 carries. Bert Jones made the offense tick, connecting with his cousin 4 times for 121 yards and 2 TDs in the 1st half.
The second half began with a strong LSU drive, moving to the Irish 31 before Cantrelle fumbled the ball away. Notre Dame couldn’t capitalize. The teams traded punts, before Notre Dame took the ball with 6:43 to go in the 3rd. After a pair of conversions, the Irish moved to the LSU 36, when Warren Capone nabbed his 2nd INT of the game. The box score describes this as “Intercepted, OR STOLEN, IF YOU WILL.” All for naught, LSU went 3 and out and punted. Fortunately, the Irish fumbled on the first play, and LSU recovered. LSU worked their way to the goal line after a pair of runs and a pair of completions to, who else, Andy Hamilton. On 1st and goal, Jones rolled left and leapt into the end zone for a 21-0 LSU lead heading into the 4th quarter.
Notre Dame’s first drive in the final stanza concluded with an INT, this time to superstar Tommy Casanova. After an LSU punt, the Irish took the ball from their own 28 and drove the field for their first points of the day, cutting the lead to 21-8, after successfully converting the 2 point conversion. But the drive took over 5:00 off the clock, leaving the Irish with only 2:54 to play and a 2 TD deficit.
Desperate, Notre Dame went for an onside kick. LSU recovered. Ever the traditionalist, McClendon sent in the bulk of his reserves to run out the remainder of the clock. Not to be outdone, the backups drove the length of the field, before QB Paul Lyons found WR Andy Hamilton for his 3rd receiving TD of the day. With :20 to go, the Tigers were in a celebratory mood for their resounding victory. Fans rushed the field and tore down the goal posts.
The Irish reached a 4th and goal on three separate occasions in this game and each time, the LSU defense stood up for miraculous stops. 2 in the South end zone, one in the North. The Irish would out gain LSU but turn the ball over four times. The real story of the game is that LSU would stand up when it mattered, both offensively and defensively.
McClendon declared it the biggest win in Tiger Stadium history. It’s a game that felt transcendent at the time. It’s hard to understand the landscape of 1971 in today’s globally accessible game, when it’s more rare a game isn’t on TV than it is. This was Louisiana showing the world, via Notre Dame, what they were all about. It felt that big.
L vs. Alabama 7 - 14
W vs. Tulane 36 - 7
This is one of the most obvious and easy choices of the whole series. The win vs. Notre Dame was monumental. Even though it wouldn’t lead to a conference or national title, it served as a moment to remind the nation that LSU was a national powerhouse that could beat anyone in the country. This isn’t just the best game of 1971. It’s the single greatest game of the McClendon era.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1971?
This poll is closed
Notre Dame, and there is no other choice
Well, we did smash the Greenies