In the aftermath of the 1969 season, big things were expected in 1970. LSU would have to avenge its epic screw job of not getting a bowl invite despite finishing 9-1 and in the top 10. The Tigers were losing its starting quarterback, Mike Hillman, but it did return maybe the best offensive player of the era, receiver Andy Hamilton.
The real strength of the team was its defense, and star linebacker Mike Anderson returned to anchor the unit. LSU enjoyed perhaps its best trio of defensive stars at each level of McClendon’s entire tenure: Ronnie Estay up front, Mike Anderson in the middle, and the incomparable Tommy Casanova in the defensive backfield.
It was a team reasonably poised for big things, when tragedy struck right before the season started. Quarterback Butch Duhe, the new starter and a heralded underclassman recruit, complained during the summer of headaches. He received treatment from a neurosurgeon and seemed to be progressing, but then suffered a brain hemorrhage and died in early September of 1970.
A week later, the team, still mourning the loss of their quarterback and friend, lost its season opener to Texas A&M in a game that, frankly, they should have won. LSU had the ball inside the A&M 20 and the lead with under two minutes left and managed to lose when A&M connected on a miracle hail mary.
But the Tigers quickly rallied and rolled off four straight wins, allowing a total of just 17 points while also posting two shutouts. LSU then embarked on a road trip which would determine the fate of the season: consecutive games against #6 Auburn and #19 Alabama.
Cholly Mac had always favored a two quarterback system, but now instead of using the star he had groomed for the position, he turned the rotation over to Buddy Lee and a cocky sophomore from Ruston named Bert Jones.
Auburn had already beaten preseason favorite Tennessee 36-23 and No. 16 Georgia Tech 31-7. The Plainsmen had a high-flying offense keyed by eventual SEC Player of the Year Pat Sullivan (and the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner). Sullivan passed the ball in a manner unknown in 1970, ranking first in the NCAA in yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, yards/attempt, and efficiency rating. His 167/281 for 2586 yards on 59.4 percent and 9.2 yards/attempt line wouldn’t look out of place in today’s game. In 1970, it was mind-blowing.
Auburn had scored at least 30 points in all of its games so far, and they had already played two conference games and two ranked teams. This was the proverbial matchup of the irresistible force and the immovable object. LSU hoped that its defense would prove that it could resist Auburn’s offensive force.
It rained. A lot.
Good thing this one wasn’t played in Tiger Stadium. The rain caused sloppy conditions and a wet football, two things which hindered Pat Sullivan and his aerial assault right from the beginning. Before the game even started, the LSU defense got an assist from the heavens above.
Proof that even God hates Auburn.
Cholly Mac may have rotated quarterbacks, but he found a running back he could lean heavily on in Art Cantrelle. He took the ball on the first five plays of the game to soften up the Auburn defense. The drive died at the 45, but the point was made: LSU was going to physically punish Auburn on both sides of the ball.
Wayne Dickenson punted the ball down to the 8, pinning Auburn deep. Auburn’s first drive did not go nearly as well as LSU’s, as Wallace Clark fumbled the handoff from Pat Sullivan recovered by Richard Picou. Buddy Lee would loft an easy pass into the waiting arms of Andy Hamilton for a touchdown and an early 7-0 LSU lead.
Sullivan would get the offense working on the next Auburn drive, getting the ball to a first and 10 at the 37. An LSU offside penalty inched Auburn even further down the field. LSU had enough of this nonsense, and defensive tackle John Sage batted the next pass into the air, caught by a diving Tommy Casanova. Two drives in, Auburn had turned the ball over both times.
LSU couldn’t get a drive going this time, and on Auburn’s next possession, Sullivan showed why he was such a feared passer, connecting on a 38-yard pass to Terry Beasley. However, the LSU defense stiffened into that immovable object again, forcing a punt. LSU took over at their own 7, a victory for Auburn, given how the first quarter had gone so far.
The worm truly turned when Cantrelle fumbled the ball two plays later, recovered by Auburn’s Johnny Simmons at the 16. Auburn’s good fortune only went so far, as Sullivan missed a wide open Beasley on first down. Auburn failed to convert a first down and had to settle for a 29-yard field goal.
A steady diet of Art Cantrelle got the Tigers to their own 39, but the drive bogged down once Buddy Lee tried throwing the ball. It went poorly. Auburn got the ball back and went to a more conservative offense based on the running of Wallace Clark. But Sullivan still delivered the big blows with his arm. Auburn drove to the LSU 17, but Sullivan couldn’t connect with Mickey Zofko on fourth down. Auburn settled for another field goal, moving the score to 7-6.
Midway through the second quarter and with the early lead nearly evaporated, McClendon went to his rotation and inserted Bert Jones into the game. The move worked. Jones spread the ball around and hit paydirt when Auburn interfered with Hamilton in the end zone, placing the ball at the 1. Cantrelle pushed the ball over the line to extend the lead. The PAT was no gimme as Pat Lyons fumbled the snap. Kicker Mark Lumpkin picked up the ball and flung it towards the goal line, where it was batted by an Auburn player before finally falling into the arms of Lyons again. Lyons lunged into the end zone for two points and a 15-6 lead.
Auburn went three and out and time was running out on the half, but Casanova returned the punt to the 49, sparking the LSU offense into action. Jones found Ken Kavanaugh for a 21-yard gain down to the 24, but Kavanaugh fumbled the ball to end the play. Auburn recovered and ran out the clock to go into the half and regroup.
Regroup they did. LSU used its hammer of Cantrelle again, but couldn’t cross the midfield stripe. Auburn took over on its own 14 and after a few Wallace Clark runs, Pat Sullivan went to work. Sullivan fumbled a pitch on third and 8 but picked up the loose ball and rushed 15 yards for the first. The next play, he found Beasley again down the sideline for a 41-yard gain. Auburn was now in the red zone, but the LSU defense stiffened again and allowed zero yards on the next three plays. Zofko almost came down with the ball in the end zone, but it was knocked away, and Auburn settled for another short field goal, and trailed 15-9.
Buddy Lee came back into the game but the game plan wasn’t in doubt. Cantrelle. Cantrelle. Then Cantrelle again. Six of eight plays went to Cantrelle before the drive died at the Auburn 48 and LSU had Willingham pin Auburn deep again, this time at the 12. Auburn went three and out, and LSU took over at the Auburn 40.
McClendon now decided to change his offensive game plan of running Art Cantrelle on nearly every play. Bert Jones came out throwing, but he failed to convert a third down from the 37. An Auburn personal foul bailed him out, so McClendon went to what he knew: running the ball over and over. Chris Dantin would run the ball on the final seven plays of the third quarter, including a fourth-and-1 conversion from the 13. The quarter ended with LSU on the three, facing a fourth and 2.
I know McClendon has a conservative rep, and he certainly didn’t run a high-flying offense like Auburn did, but I’ve come to appreciate the man’s gift for the calculated risk. It seems every time I write about an old Cholly Mac game, he always makes the risky call instead of the safe one. That’s what he did here. He went for it, but Dantin came up a yard short. Auburn took over on downs, and still had life.
Maybe Cholly Mac should’ve been more conservative and taken the two-score lead. Instead, the game was still 15-9, and Auburn had the ball, though it was on their own 2. Sullivan, as was his style, tried to pass the ball out of his own end zone, but he was brought down for a safety by Estay. It was the first time all year anyone had sacked Sullivan, and it came at the worst possible time.
LSU returned the free kick down to the Auburn 41. LSU still had the chance to put this game away. Then things went horribly wrong. Buddy Lee missed his receiver and a holding penalty pushed the team back 16 yards. With a chance to redeem himself, Buddy Lee instead threw an interception at the Auburn 38.
Auburn’s good fortune was short lived, as the LSU defense showed up once again. Louis Cascio picked off a Sullivan pass and LSU took over near midfield. The offense couldn’t move the ball and had to punt it away. Auburn similarly had no success, and punted back to LSU. LSU would go three and out. After this exchange of punts, Auburn took over on its own 43, and the chance to tie the game with a touchdown and a conversion. Sullivan promptly threw another interception to Bill Norsworthy.
Believe it or not, this was now the EIGHTH possession of the quarter, not counting the carry over from the third. And there was still more than six minutes to play. LSU could not bleed the clock. LSU would go three and out and be forced to punt yet again.
This time, however, the punt never occurred. Dickinson fumbled the snap. In the mad scramble, he picked up his own fumble, outran the first defenders and heaved a desperate pass that was fortunately not intercepted. It was an incompletion on fourth down, so Auburn took over at the LSU 31.
Sullivan wasted no time to take advantage. Mickey Zofko came down with Sullivan’s first down pass, falling out of bounds at the 8. Auburn would have four plays to score a touchdown on fourth and goal. LSU had not allowed a rushing TD all season nor was it about to start now. Far be it from me to criticize the playcalling of Auburn from nearly 40 years ago, but perhaps you might want to use the best passer in the nation in this situation, especially considering the rain had lifted.
Ralph Jordan might have been a forward thinking coach, but it was still 1970. With first and goal to go, you run the ball. Even when you have the best QB in the nation and you’re facing the best run defense in the nation. So run the ball he did. Three yards on first. Two yards on second. One more on third.
It came down to fourth and goal. Wallace Clark got the handoff, hit the hole on the right side of the line… and was immediately stood up by Mike Anderson. In one of the plays that lives on in Tiger Lore, Anderson saved the game by not giving an inch and preserving the defensive stand. McClendon would state that only a perfect tackle would have stopped Clark and preserved the win... Mike Anderson made that perfect tackle.
LSU took over the ball and nearly ran out the clock. Auburn had time for one last desperation pass which fell 21 yards short of the end zone. LSU had knocked off the top team in the SEC and took over first place in the conference. The team would go on to win the SEC title, losing only once more in the regular season in a classic to Notre Dame. LSU accepted an Orange Bowl bid to play Nebraska.
14-9 #19 Alabama
0-3 #2 Notre Dame
61-17 Ole Miss
12-17 #3 Nebraska
The team finished 9-3, but it was one of the very best teams in the country. The Texas A&M loss was on a fluke play on the final play about a week after personal tragedy. It’s a hard game to hold against the tigers. The other two losses were to the teams who finished 1st and 2nd in the final AP poll. Nebraska knew at kickoff that the top two teams had already lost and a win would secure them a national title. Still, LSU took a 12-10 lead into the final quarter, but Nebraska proved to be a little too much, scoring the go-ahead touchdown and then salting the game away with impressive ball control. It is considered one of the greatest Orange Bowls ever played, even though LSU was on the short end of it.
LSU completed the sweep of the state of Alabama the following week, outlasting Bama 14-9. Bama only went 6-5-1 this season, but it was still the Bear, and LSU almost squandered a 14-3 lead due to some inopportune turnovers. This was LSU’s last win over Alabama until 1982. Apparently, Bear took this personally.
LSU’s Orange Bowl bid was contingent on beating Ole Miss. This wasn’t as impressive as it could have been, as Archie Manning played hurt and looked every bit the injured player. LSU took full advantage of his injury, sacking him in the end zone. Tommy Casanova had a monster game with three touchdowns, two on punt returns and one as a receiver. It secured the Orange Bowl and LSU’s first SEC title since 1961.
As for the Notre Dame game, I’ll let John Ferguson tell you.
LSU-Notre Dame, 1970: This game was played in South Bend and it may be the best football game in which an LSU team has ever participated. Big-time teams, big-time college football atmosphere. I am sure that Knute Rockne was somewhere in the stands enjoying some of the hardest hitting that storied football stadium has ever seen. Really the game should have ended in a 0-0 tie. Nevertheless, thanks to a last-minute field goal, Notre Dame won 3-0.
Hard to argue with the great Voice of the Tigers. LSU had a 34-yard field goal blocked in the fourth quarter, missing a chance to go ahead late. Casanova nearly intercepted Theismann on the game’s penultimate play, but he dropped the ball. It stands as perhaps the only mistake he ever made on campus.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1970?
This poll is closed
Perfect defense against Auburn
Last win over Bama for a long time
John Ferguson’s choice of greatest game (Notre Dame)
Casanova going HAM against Ole Miss
Classic Orange Bowl, but a loss to Nebraska