The LSU football program was stuck in a holding pattern in 1978. Charles McClendon had been fired, sort of, two years prior, but he refused to step down as coach and continued to honor his contract.
After the 1976 season, LSU boosters orchestrated to remove McClendon as a head coach for his failures in recruiting and inability to win a national championship. History repeats itself, eh? However, a major difference was that in 1976, the most prominent voice calling for the coach’s dismissal was the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Cannon.
In the words of Dave Kindred, writing then for The Washington Post:
Because Cannon once could run with a football in his hands, the Board of Supervisors believed he knew what he was talking about.
Making speeches around the state, Cannon told whoever asked that McClendon could not recruit, that LSU was losing too many good Louisiana players to other schools. Why, Cannon asked, did Terry Bradshaw, of Shreveport, go to Louisiana Tech and not LSU?
Cannon said McClendon could not create an offense worth the name. Too conservative, McClendon was a nice guy, sure. Cannon gave him that. But Coach Mac was too nice; he would not fire longtime assistants who were incompetent.
Que sera, sera.
However, McClendon still had four years left on a ten-year contract, so the Board devised an ill-conceived scheme to either offer him a full buyout of the last four years or he could coach for just two more seasons and then be let go. Never in a million years did they think Coach Mac would take Option B.
He took Option B. So he went into the 1978 season as a lame-duck coach. All he did in his two lame-duck seasons was go 8-4 each year, riding perhaps the greatest running back in LSU’s first 100 years, Charles Alexander. Alexander was name SEC Player of the Year in 1977 and was a consensus All-American in 1977 and 78.
So much for “can’t recruit.”
LSU hired Paul Dietzel as the new AD in 1978, and he would later arrange for one more season for Charles McClendon. In the battle of wills, Coach Mac won. But what he couldn’t do was beat Alabama. LSU would lose to Georgia and Bama in 1978, and finish third in the SEC behind both of those teams.
It summed up Cholly Mac to a T. He won. He even won a lot. He just didn’t win enough, nor against the right teams. The fans stayed angry that his level of success wasn’t successful enough. But in the meantime, they got to enjoy the exploits of one of the all-time Tiger greats, Charles Alexander.
LSU travelled to Florida at 3-0 and on the cusp of the top ten. But LSU had yet to begin its conference schedule. The team was getting ramped up, and had to travel to Gainesville. Alexander was his usual dominant self, but was carrying a lighter load of the carries thanks to the emergence of sophomore Hokie Gajan.
The Tigers opened SEC play exactly as they expected, with a defensive stop followed by a punishing drive keyed by the dual threat of Alexander and Gajan. The two backs combined for 64 of the drive’s 65 yards, as David Woodley would get the final yard for a touchdown a 7-0 lead.
Florida spent most of the first quarter deep in its own territory, but LSU could only manage one more score, a short field goal by Mike Conway. Florida got back in the game when John Brantley found Cris Collinsworth, yes that one, for a 43-yard touchdown. Berj Yerpremian added the extra point and it was suddenly a 10-7 game.
Cholly Mac went back to his conservative offense, winning all sorts of friends and admirers. Alexander and Gajan again would combine for 71 yards to get the ball to the nine-yard line. Not one other LSU player gained a yard. But Woodley scrambled eight yards to the one on the next play. Still, LSU couldn’t break the plane, and fourth and goal failed when Woodley’s pass fell incomplete.
On the next drive, Cholly Mac went back to Alexander to open the drive, then went against tendencies and had Woodley find Carlos Carson for a 55-yard gain. Woodley would hit Carson for another gain on the drive, setting up an Alexander one-yard run. LSU took the 17-7 lead into the half.
The Tigers had held the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first half, smothering the Florida offense. Alexander already had passed the century mark rushing the ball. Florida was just 1 of 9 passing the ball, and LSU had a yardage edge of 238-82. Utter domination.
LSU would open up the scoring of the second half with a Mike Quintela touchdown run, just to make things interesting. LSU pushed its lead to 27-7 with another field goal. But on the next kickoff, Cris Collinsworth would return the kick 99 yards for a touchdown. Again, Florida had life despite getting crushed in the run of play.
Cholly Mac stopped kidding around in the fourth quarter, running the ball on eight consecutive plays, seven of them by Alexander. Inside the five yard line, he called for backup QB Steve Ensminger to run the ball. He fumbled and somehow Florida was still alive.
Chris Williams would save LSU’s momentum by intercepting a pass on the ensuing Florida possession. The Tigers took over, but two plays later, Ensminger threw another interception. Florida’s backup QB would be more successful. Larry Ochab lateralled to Tony Stephens, who lobbed the ball to Ron Enclade for a 48-yard touchdown.
LSU would then go three and out, and somehow Florida had the ball and a chance to take the lead. In a game LSU had dominated from the start, they now needed a defensive stop to preserve a 27-21 lead. Ochab tried to find Collinsworth, but consecutive tries fell incomplete.
Now, it was a Hokie’s turn to be the hero. LSU took over with five minutes left, and Gajan and Ensminger combined on a 49-yard drive, capped off by an Ensminger touchdown run. The two would combine for every yard gained on the drive, and bled over three minutes off the clock.
LSU finished the game with 315 total yards rushing, 156 of it by Charles Alexander. His 172 yards from scrimmage almost single-handedly topped Florida’s entire game output of 178 yards. LSU converted a remarkable 16 of 23 third downs and held the ball for 41:48. It was sloppy and as subtle as a jackhammer, but it is a perfect encapsulation of LSU in 1978: Charles Alexander couldn’t be stopped by mere mortals.
Unfortunately, he ran into Alabama.
30-8 Ole Miss
Not a whole lot of options, to be honest. LSU beat the teams it was supposed to beat, and lost to the teams that finished ahead of them. Bama wasn’t even competitive, a 31-10 loss. Alexander took his final bow in Tiger Stadium against Wyoming, but his record setting performance against the Cowboys was the year prior. LSU blasted Ole Miss behind another Alexander performance, but the team fell just short in the Liberty Bowl. LSU fell behind early, but a furious rally came up just short. Alexander rushed for 133 yards, but Woodley and Ensminger combined for an almost comical 13-31 line with a pair of interceptions apiece.