We have already delved into the insanity of the Bob Broadhead years and the eventual fallout in 1986, so let’s take the chance to marvel at how great Bill Arnsparger’s tumultuous three years in Baton Rouge were.
Broadhead pushed out beloved LSU legend Jerry Stovall after four up and down seasons, bringing in the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator. He was the first man to coach a football game at LSU from outside the LSU “family” since Paul Dietzel. Before that, the last man to come to LSU without having played or coached previously was Biff Jones, and he was assigned the job by the US Army in 1932.
LSU had attempted to go outside the good ole boy network when it hired Bo Rein from NC State in 1980, but he tragically never coached a game. Now, Broadhead wasn’t bringing in a southern college coach, he was bringing in a guy who had been in the NFL for the past 20 years.
When Broadhead went outside the family, he didn’t screw around.
It was a tremendously unpopular hire with the LSU faithful and Broadhead need it to work right away. It did.
Some of the criticism was correct. Arnsparger was an indifferent recruiter. He never took to the culture in Louisiana and he bolted at the first opportunity. He was a difficult person, demonstrated by being the only coach to simply refuse to attend SEC media days.
But, man. He could coach. LSU wet to two Sugar Bowls in three years, won their first SEC title since the early days of Coach Mac, and Arnsparger left with an undefeated record against Bama, going 2-0-1. He took over a program coming off a losing season and immediately contended for titles. All three of his LSU teams spent time in the top 10 and finished in the top 20. And all three lost their bowl game.
Arnsparger took over the job in 1984 with had a bevy of upperclassman stalwarts on which to build the team. Stovall didn’t leave the cupboard bare, leaving behind upperclassmen NFL talents such as Lance Smith, Jeffery Dale, Liffort Hobley, Eric Martin, Garry James, and Dalton Hilliard. He also had a returning quarterback in Jeff Wickersham, and maybe the greatest linebacker in LSU history, sophomore Michael Brooks.
Of course, maybe returning Jeff Wickersham wasn’t such a great thing. If Bill Arnsparger is the ultimate in causing LSU fans ambivalence, no one player symbolizes the era more than his quarterback. Arnsparger would bring us to great highs, but would always find a way to not quite get there. It really was the best and worst of times.
Wickersham is second all-time at LSU in passing yards with 6,921. He graduated as the career leader, only having been passed by the man who immediately succeeded him, Tommy Hodson. But he also had a career TD/INT ratio of 25/39, never once as a starter throwing more TD’s than picks in a season. Among LSU quarterbacks in the top 10 of passing yards, he has the worst yards/attempt, worst TD/INT ratio, and second worst QB rating, behind only Jamie Howard (who somehow ranks fourth on our passing yards list).
The Tigers stumbled out of the gate with a 21-21 tie against Florida, but quickly recovered. LSU won its next five games, including a 23-3 pasting of USC in Los Angeles. The Tigers dropped a game against Notre Dame to fall out of the top 10, but ran its record to 6-1-1 and 3-0-1 in the SEC when it travelled to Birmingham to face traditional bugaboo, Alabama.
Bama was a hard luck 3-5, losing by a single score to ranked Boston College and Georgia, plus losing by a single point to Tennessee. However, this team beat #11 Penn St 6-0 as well, and had started the season in the top 10. So many great LSU seasons had crashed on the rocks against Alabama, and this Tide team was just as capable of ruining yet another LSU campaign.
Could Arnsparger change LSU’s fortunes?
Oh, we have video.
The rain came pouring down on Legion Field, pooling up into small ponds on the slick artificial turf. The rain and wind would be so bad that there would be a tornado warning in the second quarter. But when the game started, the rains had not yet set in, giving both chances a chance to strut their stuff before the weather rendered it impossible.
Sammy Martin took the opening kick up near midfield, giving LSU great field position to start the game. And right away, Wickersham would find Eric Martin on consecutive plays, driving the ball inside the red zone. Dalton Hilliard would make some pounding runs to get the ball on the doorstep, and Wickersham would play action to Herman Fontenot from two yards out and a 7-0 lead.
Now, it was Bama’s turn. Mike Shula would guide Bama on a 15-play, 75-yard trek down the field, resulting in a two yard touchdown run by Ricky Moore. It, of course, was not without controversy. LSU gang tackled Paul Carruth near midfield. The ball popped out and LSU would recover. The refs would blow the play dead and then drop a late flag on LSU for a five-yard face mask penalty, preserving the Bama possession. A few plays later, LSU nearly had a stop on 3rd and 11 at the 38, but Shula found Greg Payne for a 12-yard gain.
Wickersham would throw three straight incompletions, giving the ball back to Bama. Mike Shula would respond to this good fortune by promptly throwing the ball to Norman Jefferson. Jefferson tacked on a decent return of the interception, and LSU took over at the Alabama 29. LSU simply moved backwards 23 yards due to two penalties and a sack of Wickersham.
LSU pinned Bama deep and after a three and out seemed poised to take advantage of great field position. However, Bama booted the ball 50 yards on the punt and the refs tacked on another 15 yards for a questionable clipping call. LSU did not get the field position they were counting on.
The teams traded punts again, but Norman Jefferson made his second huge play of the game, returning the Bama punt 34 yards to the Bama 41, slowed down by the punter. Wickersham would find Eric Martin wide open on 3rd and short to the 2, but Martin would drop the pass and LSU would settle for a 40-yard field goal from Ron Lewis. LSU took back the lead, as the skies began to open up.
Bama would mount a challenge on a drive which seemed doomed, but converted a 3rd and 11. The ball squirted out, but officials ruled that the ground caused the fumble. The officials tagged LSU for a facemask on the next play, and Bama picked up over 40 yards in two plays, and now were in business. The LSU defense tried to make a stand on 2nd and short on their own 14, stopping Bama twice, but Carruth converted the fourth down run. Shula would find Ed Pugh for his sole catch of the year, a four-yard TD catch. Bama had its first lead of the game with a minute left in the half.
LSU’s desperation drive came up short, as Wickersham’s hail mary went unanswered and Lewis’ 64-yard attempt was nowhere close. Eric Martin dropped another pass earlier in the drive at the 35, which would have at least given Lewis a more realistic try.
On the very first drive of the second half, LSU forced Bama to punt five yards shy of midfield. This is when Bama decided it would be a good idea to not block Michael Brooks, who broke through the line completely unmolested and blocked the kick, recovered by Kevin Guidry at the 12.
Dalton Hilliard would punch it into the end zone three plays later, and LSU would retake the lead. Arnsparger made the curious decision to go for two to prevent the tie if Bama were to kick a field goal. Which would make sense if there weren’t 7:53 left in the third quarter. The try failed and LSU had a 16-14 lead, which they would now spend the rest of the game desperately trying to defend.
The rest of the game was an exercise in nail biting. Bama would repeatedly drive the football, then fail to score. LSU would promptly give the ball back and the cycle would repeat itself. Observe:
- Bama drove down to the LSU 32, but then moved backwards 20 yards on a two penalties. Shula threw a pick to Jefferson again that was honestly more of a punt. LSU would soon punt the ball back.
- Bama took over the ball again and methodically picked up yardage. The third quarter ended with the ball at the LSU 44. The Tide would get to the 35… and punt. LSU would punt the ball right back.
- Bama drove down to the LSU 29 on 11 plays, twice converted third downs. But on third and 1, the refs flagged Bama for a procedure penalty, and Shula’s pass on 3rd and 6 fell incomplete. Van tiffin’s 51-yard field goal attempt would fall short.
- LSU would take only two minutes off the clock, winding it down to 3:29 as they punted the ball into the end zone. Alabama would fail to convert a fourth down and turn the ball over on downs.
Surely, the game would be over at this point. LSU took over with 2:18 left, nursing a two point lead. But again, LSU could not convert a first down, forcing another punt. Mike Shula would almost find Joe Smith for a miracle catch, but the ball fell incomplete. Hobley would seal the game on an interception on the game’s final play.
Bama dominated the stat sheet. Bama won the yardage battle 332-161. They won first downs 22-8. They outpossessed LSU 40:49-19:11. Jeff Wickersham finished the game with a dismal 12/23 for 87 yards line.
But somehow LSU won. Outplayed and outmystiqued, LSU fought off the Tide, the refs, and the weather to win 16-14. The loss guaranteed that Bama would suffer its first losing since 1957, and officially snapped their bowl streak dating back to 1959.
It was a small measure of revenge for every time Bama ruined a great LSU season. Bama walked off the field in 1984 knowing that they were the better team that day, yet somehow lost. We know that feeling.
32-29 Ole Miss
The Florida game was a classic, though a disappointment. In the season opener, LSU scored a touchdown to go up 21-14 to start the fourth. Florida responded with a touchdown drive of their own. LSU drove down the field, getting down to the 23 yardline, when Wickersham took a sack on 3rd and 10, pushing the ball back to the 29. Juan Betanzos would miss the game winner from 45, as Arnsparger tried to wish his kicker out of existence.
LSU would pile up two Pac-10 wins. There was the aforementioned ass-kicking of USC on the road. Even more impressive, the Trojans finished the season #10 in the country. LSU played a back and forth game with Arizona. Max Zendejas hit a 32-yard field goal with 2:52 left to cut the lead to one. They never threatened again.
The week before the Bama game, LSU beat Ole Miss in a wild one. LSU went into the fourth quarter down 16-12 because Betanzos missed two PAT’s, pretty much ending his career at LSU. Ron Lewis would kick two field goals to give LSU the lead, only for Ole Miss to take it back with a touchdown. LSU would score two touchdowns in less than minute, and LSU would hold on in a wild fourth quarter that saw the teams score 33 points. Arnsparger would remark, “This is the first LSU-Ole Miss game that I’ve been associated with and I don’t know if I can stand many more.” He didn’t.
Because God has a sense of humor, once LSU finally got the Bama monkey off its back to have a clear path at the SEC title, they promptly dropped the next game to Mississippi St. LSU took a 14-7 lead, but failed to score a point in the second half as the offense would not run a single play in Bulldog territory in the half until there was under a minute remaining in the game. Lewis’ 59-yard attempt at the final gun fell short. State would kick two field goals in the fourth quarter, twice getting inside the LSU 10 on consecutive drives of 10+ plays and 60+ yards.
LSU would still get a Sugar Bowl bid, going in place of SEC champion Florida, barred from postseason play for committing 67 rules violations. The SEC would strip Florida of the title the next season. Forever, the title will remain vacant. Had LSU simply beaten Mississippi St, the trophy would read 1984 LSU.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1984?
This poll is closed
Hanging a losing season on Bama
Blowing out USC
Ole Miss 4th quarter points explosion
Tying dirty, cheating Florida