In 1963, Charley McClendon began to put his own touches on the program he inherited from Paul Dietzel. He started well in 1962, and found success in ‘63, despite a rash of injuries that took down eight primary contributors for portions of the season. Notably, he lost QB Pat Screen for six games due to a separated shoulder. The injury, along with the departure of RB Danny LeBlanc, who left the program, forced McClendon to re-evaulate his offensive philosophy. Rather than putting Screen’s body on the line so routinely as they did in their tight formation, run-heavy scheme from before, McClendon looked to open things up in a more “pro style” approach. The scheme shift also instigated a secret position change for Doug Moreau from end to flanker, to maximize his pass catching ability.
Changing schemes is a tall task. ‘64 could very well be a good parallel to LSU’s upcoming 2018 campaign. Ushering in a new offense under a 3rd year coach who has had success but still trying to curry the favor of the fanbase. McClendon had practical reasons for the scheme shift (trying to protect Pat Screen), but I’m certain impractical ones played a part as well, namely a desire to deliver a product the fans would love. Similarly Orgeron can assess the current state of the roster and see the impressive collection of WR talent sparking the change to a pass-friendly offense, while also wanting to field something more purely entertaining for the thirsty fanbase. When thirsting change, it’s easy to forget thing you often take for granted. Such was the case in ‘64, when LSU opened the season against the Aggies, amassing 293 total yards, an impressive total for the age. Conversely, they also turned the ball over three times, sparking McClendon to remark, “I think we may keep our opponents loose, but this team is going to keep the LSU coaches loose too.”
LSU may have changed the style in ‘64, but the scoreboard looked similar, as the Tigers specialized in low-scoring, defensive battles. The formula worked, why change it?
The Greatest Game in 1964: Ole Miss
The offense built for Screen worked to the end of moving LSU up and down the field well, but the team struggled in the red zone. They scored just 32 total points after the first three weeks of the season, but most importantly were 3-0 heading into a showdown with McClendon’s alma mater, Kentucky. The week before, LSU beat UNC 20-3, and Screen would wind up missing the entire 2nd quarter after a hard hit on a pass attempt. He would return to the game, but would never play a full game for the remainder of the ‘64 season. Yet again, bad luck beset Screen. Backup Billy Ezell took over vs. Kentucky, just as he had taken over for Screen in ‘63. Ezell successfully captained the offense to multiple scoring drives, but the key play came from White Graves, who returned an interception 100 yards to give LSU a 17-7 lead and break the game open. By this time, LSU’s new-look offense garnered a lot of attention, but as was the case with most of McClendon’s best teams the real success came from the emerging defense. LSU allowed only two TDs through four games to open the season.
The unit put on a real show the next week, when LSU welcomed Tennessee to town. Keep in mind, in 1963 the Vols had lost to LSU only once since the 1920s, in 1933. Though the teams didn’t play every year, Tennessee still held an 11-1 record against the Tigers. LSU’s defense put on a show in the regionally televised showdown of 1964, limiting the Vols to only 75 total yards of offense and just six first downs. This game is perhaps the model Les Miles used for the 2011 BCS National Championship: the Vols didn’t cross the 50-yard-line in the 2nd half. Tennessee managed only a FG on the day and LSU’s offensive issues in the red zone continued, limiting the game to a 3-3 tie. Doug Moreau, LSU’s star flanker/kicker, apparently gassed, missed three field goals inside the 30. The Vols also stuffed LSU on the 1-foot line at one point. Despite Tennessee dominating LSU historically, LSU were considered major favorites in the game, so this was a bit of a disappointment. Enough so that it tempered expectations as LSU welcomed their heated rivals, the Ole Miss Rebels to town the next week.
1964 Ole Miss proved to be one of the poorest seasons in Johnny Vaught’s legendary career. 18 years into his tenure, the Rebels weren’t the dominant force that stood toe-to-toe with LSU in so many epic battles in the 50s. Ole Miss had already lost to Kentucky and Florida, but many believed they possessed enough talent to turn the corner at any given moment. They entered the ‘64 Magnolia Bowl as touchdown underdogs to undefeated LSU.
LSU got off to a hot start with Pat Screen completing 9 of his first 10 passes in the opening quarter, though the offense continued to stall out in the RZ, cashing in only a FG. Ole Miss scored an opening quarter TD and held on to that 7-3 lead for most of the rest of the game. Screen would hobble off the field injured in the 2nd quarter.
In the 4th quarter, the Rebels added a FG to widen their lead to 10-3. LSU’s window of opportunity looked to be quickly closing. The 68,000 fans grew restless and many began to head for the exits as LSU punted from their own goal line. Suddenly, momentum turned when Don Ellen plowed an Ole Miss blocker into returner Doug Cunningham, who fumbled the ball. LSU’s John Aaron recovered on the Rebels 47 with 7:00 remaining in the game.
LSU strung together a six play drive getting them to the Rebel 19, on 2nd and 10. QB Billy Ezell, on for the injured Screen, called “flanker circle route” where WR Billy Masters was to run a 10-yard button hook. As he ran his route, Masters noticed the Ole Miss defender coming in and improvised his route, opting instead to take off downfield. These types of busted plays aren’t typically the wisest, but in this moment, it worked. Billy Ezell spotted Masters sprinting free down the field and fired the ball for an easy touchdown to cut the lead to 10-9. With 3:30 remaining, McClendon had a decision to make. Play it safe and secure the tie or go for the win? The ole conservative coach threw caution to the wind and went for the win. Later he would say if there had been more time he might have kicked, but he knew no one would be satisfied with a tie. Quotes like this reveal just how keenly aware McClendon was of the fanbases opinion of him, even if he quietly kept up the image of just steadfastly working away at his job.
Tensions rose as Ezell called the two-point play. The ball was snapped and Ezell rolled right, again they called for Masters to button hook. This time he followed through with the route. Doug Moreau faked inside and ran an outbreaking route toward the sideline. Ezell spotted him and fired his pass, which is tipped by Ole Miss defender Tommy Luke. In my imagination, this moment is filled with intense drama as the ball rotated in the air upon being tipped. It’s the type of tension where you could hear a pin drop. Not a breath was taken as the ball floated... seemingly heading for the ground. The talented Moreau reaches out and snags the ball on his fingertips and plants both feet in, just six inches shy of being out of bounds. 11-10 LSU leads.
McClendon would later say he didn’t know Moreau had made the catch until he heard the roar of the crowd. Moreau told the press, “Before the game, Pat Screen and I were talking about heaven, wondering what a ‘vision’ is like. Now I think I have an idea. When I was leaving the field, I closed my eyes and I think I had one.”
LSU would hold on to win the game. Another Halloween legend complete. LSU SID Ace Higgins bet Ole Miss SID a bottle of Rebel Yell that LSU would win the game. Legendary LSU announcer John Ferguson said it was the most explosive moment in Tiger Stadium history to that point, trailing only Cannon’s magical return.
The victory setup a showdown with McClendon’s mentor and his undefeated Tide at the legendary Legion Field the next week. McClendon would again fail to defeat his mentor. LSU would lose only once more, this time to Florida and a young QB named Steve Spurrier, in a game that was originally scheduled to be played in September but pushed due to Hurricane Hilda. The more things change, they more they stay the same.
9 - 17 L @ Alabama
3 - 3 T vs. Tennessee
13 - 10 W vs. Syracuse (Sugar Bowl)
The new offense didn’t quite deliver the revelatory results many hoped for in ‘64. They improved their ability to move up and down the field, but still struggled to score points. In fact, LSU broke into the opponents 10 yard line 21 times in 1964 and managed to score only five touchdowns. Sometimes what you wish for isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Beating Ole Miss, even a weakened version, was still a highlight of any season in this era. The showdown vs. Alabama was commendable, considering that team would go on to win the national title. Tying Tennessee looks nice through a historical lens, but that was not a strong Tennessee team and in the moment was considered a disappointment. Capping the season with a Sugar Bowl win helped wipe away the nasty taste of the Florida loss and set the stage for what everyone figured would be a dominant 1965 team.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1964?
This poll is closed
The thriller vs. Ole Miss
Slugfest with Alabama
Historical Tie vs. Tennessee
Sugar Bowl win vs. Syracuse.