The 1965 season opened up with large expectations. LSU managed to navigate a tough 1964 campaign into a Sugar Bowl bid. The new pro-style offense paid immediate dividends, and now the quarterback position was so deep, last year’s fill-in and unexpected hero Billy Ezell had been moved to defensive back.
The reason for this was that Nelson Stokley was now in his sophomore year and eligible to play. Stokely was a big-time recruit for the day and now LSU was in the frankly historically rare position of having too much quarterback talent.
Furthermore, the liberalized substitution rules allowed McClendon to play dedicated linemen on each side of the ball without concern for playing them on both sides of the ball. The era of specialization had begun, and McClendon loaded up with large players on the line and skilled defensive specialists like future Houston Oiler defensive tackle George Rice and 1967 All-American defensive end John Garlington.
Senior QB Pat Screen got hurt again, forcing Stokley into the starting role in one of those classic please don’t throw me in the briar patch moments. The offense immediately thrived under Stokley and he threatened to break YA Tittle’s season all-purpose yards record, only in just six games. LSU raced out to a 5-1 record and the No. 5 spot in the AP poll.
Then, the wheels came off. Stokley injured his hip in the first quarter against Ole Miss and Screen was forced back into action. The offense, which hummed so spectacularly under Stokley, bogged down. LSU would lose to Ole Miss 23-0 followed up by a loss to Bama 31-7. Pat Screen simply wasn’t Nelson Stokley.*
*Screen would go on to be a two-term mayor of Baton Rouge from 1980-88. Charges of embezzlement dogged his second term but the charges were eventually dropped and his chief administrative officer and good friend, Walter Mansour, would be held in such esteem that he would serve as Republican for two different Democratic mayors. But Screen’s political fortunes waned as he became more dependent on alcohol and drugs. He died of an overdose in New Orleans in 1994.
The team would recover to win its final two games over State and Tulane, but the damage had been done. What had looked like a potential championship level team had been derailed by injury, and finished 7-3 and 3-3 in the SEC. And that should have been the end of the story had not Jim Corbett intervened.
Jim Corbett was LSU’s athletic director from 1954 to 1967, and he was an administrator with LSU dating back to the 1940’s. He, more than almost any other person, created LSU football as we now know it. He took over a struggling program with a 45,000 seat stadium averaging 35,000 fans a game and selling around 6000 season tickets.
Corbett oversaw the expansion of Tiger Stadium to 67,720, completed in order to keep up with fan demand. By 1965, LSU sold over 30,000 season tickets and averaged over 62,000 fans a game. He introduced night football and created LSU football as an event. He also hired Paul Dietzel and then Charles McClendon. Dietzel turned the team into national champions and McClendon, in his first four seasons, went 32-10-2 and received invites to a major New Years Bowl three times. The third time, however, was all Corbett.
As SEC champs, Alabama had pick of the litter, and chose the Orange Bowl to play Nebraska for a potential shot at the national title. The Sugar Bowl took Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators. Tennessee was the No. 7 team in the nation and boasted a 6-1-2 record. The Vols were the obvious choice for the Cotton Bowl, but Corbett lobbied hard.
Corbett argued that LSU fans would travel to Dallas in greater numbers than Tennessee. Additionally, Tennessee still had a game against No. 5 UCLA to play, and if the Cotton Bowl waited for the outcome, it could potentially lose out on both teams or be stuck with a Tennessee team coming off a loss. The Cotton Bowl committee panicked, bought what Corbett was selling, and offered LSU the bid to play undefeated and top-ranked Arkansas. Tennessee would beat UCLA 37-34, and was rewarded with a trip to Houston to play Tulsa in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
Corbett pulled off his coup and got LSU into the Cotton Bowl, but now they had to actually play Arkansas. LSU was widely viewed as little more than a sacrificial lamb. According to legend, a woman at the Tigers’ hotel saw the team and yelled, “Look! They showed up!”
It was all the motivation McClendon needed. But that didn’t stop him from dressing in his practice squad in red #23 jerseys all month. Arkansas was on a 22-game winning streak and the jersey assumed a win over LSU to keep that streak going.
Meanwhile, Frank Broyles had to keep his team focused on the underdog Tigers. At the Cotton Bowl New Years’ Eve party the day before the game, a woman approached Broyles with here thoughts on the game, “You have nothing to worry about tomorrow.”
Broyles caustically replied, “Lady, that’s exactly what worries me.”
What followed was the greatest upset in LSU football history. An Arkansas blog named it the most heartbreaking game in Arkansas history. When Cholly Mac died in 2001, his obituary in The New York Times only mentioned one game…
This one. LSU went into the Cotton Bowl when no one gave them a chance and ended Arkansas’ 22-game win streak and their bid for a second consecutive national title. The team celebrated by destroying the red No. 23 practice jerseys.
Jim Corbett would die of a heart attack one year later. Peter Finney, fittingly, dedicated his book on the history of LSU football to him. If it weren’t for Corbett, Finney might not have had anything to write about.
Arkansas got the ball first and wasted no time penetrating LSU territory. Arkansas QB Jon Brittenum guided the Hogs down the field, but his third down pass came up one yard short at the 38. Playing it safe, Broyles elected to punt.
LSU responded well on its opening drive, on a steady stream of rushing plays behind its mammoth offensive line. Pat Screen kept the drive going with a big third down conversion pass play, but the Tigers moved backwards on the next play due to a 15-yard holding penalty. LSU punted away, and Arkansas took over on its own 13.
Bobby Burnett and Harry Jones softened up the LSU defense with some bruising runs, setting up Brittenum to make plays with his arm. He would roll left and hit Bobby Crockett near the 10-yard line, and Crockett would take the ball the rest of the into the end zone. The drive was almost too easy: 11 plays, 87 yards, and a 7-0 lead for Arkansas.
The Tigers would respond immediately. On third and 10 from their own 39, Screen rolled right, avoided the pass rush, and hit Doug Moreau (yes, that Doug Moreau) near the sticks. Moreau left nothing to chance, avoided his defender and was tackled at the Arkansas 14. Unfortunately, this huge play was taken off the board due to an illegal man downfield, then a 15-yard penalty. Instead, LSU was forced to punt.
Arkansas took over the ball with great field position. Brittenum again completed a big pass play, this one 14 yards to Harry Jones. Even worse for LSU, officials tacked on a 15-yard roughing penalty to the end of the run. Arkansas was on the 27 to start the second quarter, and LSU looked every bit the sacrificial lamb they were purported to be. The defense immediately stiffened, and Mike Robichaux pushed the Hogs back by sacking Brittenum for a six yard loss. Arkansas missed the ensuing 51-yard field goal attempt.
Stokley now entered the game to give the defense a different look. He would connect with Don Schwab for an 18-yard gain. The offense converted another first down and crossed midfield when Stokley went around the right end and was injured again. Worse yet, LSU was flagged for another 15-yard loss, this time for clipping.
Pat Screen re-entered the game, facing 1st and 27. He’d pick up 11 on his own then another 14 on a tipped ball caught by Billy Masters. Jim Dousay completed the unlikely conversion by picking up the last two yards on third and two. Jim Dousay and Joe Labruzzo would then take turns hammering the Hogs defense, running straight ahead behind their line. Labruzzo capped off the 16-play, 80-yard drive with a touchdown dive off tackle.
On the first play of the next possession, Brittenum injured his shoulder and came out of the game. The lightly used Ronny South took over the position. He would fumble the ball on his second snap, recovered by Bill Bass for LSU.
Screen would connect with Doug Moreau to get the ball inside the twenty, and then Labruzzo went back to work. Again going over left tackle, Labruzzo made the short dive into the end zone, this time for a 14-7 LSU lead with only 18 seconds to spare in the half.
Rain started to fall in the second half, and Brittenum, contrary to the legend, returned to the game. He quarterbacked the Hogs’ first drive of the third quarter, barely crossing midfield before falling short of the first down. Arkansas’ Jerry Nix would pin LSU on its own 2 with a perfect 45-yard punt. LSU failed to convert a single first down and punted the ball back to Arkansas, who took over at the LSU 49.
Brittenum would hit Crockett on a leaping, over the shoulder catch to get the ball down to the 15. However, the LSU defense would again answer the call, tossing Arkansas back for losses of six and seven yards on consecutive plays. South missed the 46 yard field goal attempt wide left.
The teams would each go three-and-out on their next possessions, trading punts. LSU won the exchange of punts when Nix hit the ball off the side of his foot and only punted the ball 19 yards. As the third quarter end, LSU was without a first down in the second half, but they had the ball at their own 46-yard line.
This time, it was Jim Dousay’s turn to hammer the defense. He would have eight carries on the next possession, mercilessly driving LSU inside the 10-yard line. Dousay would only pick up one yard on third and goal from the three, and McClendon elected for the short field goal to put the game away. Moreau missed a 19-yarder off to the right.
With only 8:26 left in the game, Brittenum would waste little time. Bobby Burnett mixed in an 18-yard carry, but Brittenum found Crockett twice for decent gains to get Arkansas down to the LSU 36. Trying to force the ball to Crockett for a third time on the drive proved to be a mistake, as Jerry Joseph intercepted the pass for LSU at his own 20.
Labruzzo and Screen rolled down more clock with some more bludgeoning runs, but eventually had to punt from their own 40. After a 49-yard punt by Brown, Arkansas took over with 2:25 left on its own 11. Brittenum again moved the Arkansas offense down the field with a steady diet of passes to Crockett and Jones. With 32 seconds left, Brittenum stepped out of bounds at the LSU 28 after an eight yard run.
George Rice would break through for a sack on the next play. Not only did Arkansas lose six critical yards, but time rolled off the clock. Broyles had no timeouts left and was unable to stop it. This left Arkansas with one last desperation play. Brittenum hit Crockett on the sideline but 24 yards short of the end zone. LSU had held on and ended the longest winning streak in the country.
Due to some controversy at the end of the previous season, the AP agreed for the first time to delay the release of their poll until after the bowl games. The loss cost Arkansas the national title, as all of the top three teams would lose their bowl game, allowing the #4 team to sneak into first place in the final AP poll.
You’re welcome for the 1965 National Title, Alabama.
Texas A&M 10-0
Always nice to bookend the season with shutouts against your rivals. The 62-0 score is the largest in LSU-Tulane history, though LSU pulled the trick three time (1958, 1961, and 1965). Miami was an up and coming program and they would finish the season 6-5-1. Still, there is only one option. This isn’t just the greatest win of the season, it is possibly the greatest win of the entire Charles McClendon era.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1965?
This poll is closed
Historic upset in the Cotton Bowl
Jim Corbett maneuvering LSU into the Cotton Bowl
The coaches responding to fans before the Cotton Bowl