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Greatest Games From Every Season: 2003

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Eli Trips Up Attempt to Derail LSU’s Title.

LSU v Mississippi
So sad
Photo by Chris Stanford/Getty Images

When last we left the Tigers, we were at the nadir of the program’s worst era. Sure, LSU pulled off the upset of Alabama, but what made it so miraculous was the team was so bad (though it had some talent, it was just poorly coached).

Ten years later, the team won a national championship. The climb up the mountain wasn’t without its hiccups, but it was a fast climb. Dinardo brought back the magic in 1995, and the team won an SEC title just six seasons later, albeit with a different coach.

By the time the 2003 season rolled around, LSU were the favorites, not the upstarts. LSU had been in the top ten since a win over No. 7 Georgia in late September. Even an upset loss to Florida didn’t really slow down the train, as LSU recovered to blow the doors off of Auburn and Alabama, each by 24 points.

By late November, LSU was the heavy favorites, and 15th-ranked Ole Miss was the upstart trying to pull off the upset and make an unexpected trip to Atlanta. Our old rivals would have loved nothing more than to ruin LSU’s run at a national title. To make it feel as familiar as possible to old school fans, the Rebels quarterback was even a Manning. Eli was putting the final touches on Maxwell Award winning season in which he also would be named the SEC Player of the Year.

However, the hardware which would elude him was the SEC championship. LSU made sure of that.

The Game

Due to a great punt, LSU started its first possession from its own seven. And on the first play of the game in a hostile environment, Matt Mauck made the one mistake you cannot make: he threw a pick six. Right off the bat, Ole Miss was given every reason to believe they could pull off the upset, and the crowd when absolutely bananas.

Matt Mauck did the best he could do to respond to such a blunder to begin the game, and he guided the Tigers on a long, methodical drive which ate up seven minutes of clock. LSU gained 52 yards on 15 plays, methodically driving down the field before settling for a long Chris Jackson field goal. It wasn’t the situation LSU wanted to be in, but they responded well, and were down 7-3.

The teams would then spend some time trading punts and fighting for territory. LSU was primarily trapped in its own end while the Rebels consistently would probe past midfield, but would be unable to go any further.

About halfway through the second quarter, Matt Mauck would make another huge mistake. He threw his second interception of the half, giving Ole Miss great field position at the LSU 35. Let’s not romanticize the quality of quarterback play LSU had even on its national title teams. Mauck was a limited player, and he had some doozies of some bad games.

It was now up to the nation’s leading scoring defense to respond. Ole Miss was only able to gain six yards on the next three plays and settled for a 47-yard field goal attempt which went wide right. LSU had handed Ole Miss a golden opportunity to extend their lead, and they balked.

Opportunity might only knock once, but LSU kicked down the door frame just to be sure. Justin Vincent found daylight and scampered 43 yards down the field into the Ole Miss red zone. Michael Clayton would make the next two receptions, including the go ahead touchdown from nine yards out on our favorite play at the time, the bubble screen. LSU hadn’t played well, and they had spent most of the game in the shadow of their own end zone, but they held a 10-7 lead, which the Tigers would take into the half.

LSU hadn’t played particularly well, but they’d get the ball first, a perfect chance to put this game away with some authority. Not so much. Instead, the offense struggled and went three and out. Ole Miss couldn’t do much in response, and punted the ball right back, just after crossing midfield. Ole Miss caught the punt on the goalline, but the Rebel player’s foot just eased over the line to cause a touchback, a fortunate break for LSU.

LSU took over again at its own 20 and on the first play of the drive, Mauck threw his third interception of the game. Ole Miss took over on the 31 and the crowd again had sprung to life. Keep giving Eli Manning these kinds of chances, eventually he’s going to take advantage.

Except he didn’t.

Eli took a sack on the first play to drive his team out of field position, and then Corey Webster stepped in front of the next pass from Manning to snuff out the threat. Ole Miss had spent nearly the entire game threatening, but the offense had nothing to show for it.

After some exchanges of punts, LSU was finally able to flip field position for the first time all game. LSU got near midfield and though they were unable to mount a serious threat from there, Donnie Jones would pin Ole Miss on their own two with a gorgeous punt of his own.

The Rebels were unable to manage a first down, and LSU would take over on a small return by Shyrone Carey to the LSU 41, wiped out by a penalty on the return. LSU backed up to its own 31, and the drive continued to struggle from there. On third and seven from their own 47, on a drive that seemed to be going nowhere, Mauck found Devery Henderson, who somehow got behind the defense, on the first play of the fourth quarter, and LSU put themselves ahead 17-7.

To give Manning credit, this could have been when he threw in the towel. He was not playing a particularly good game to this point, and LSU had just staked out to a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter. He would take a sack on first down by Marquise Hill and it looked like it was another instance of here we go again for the Rebs on offense. But LSU would bail out Ole Miss with a defensive hold on third down.

Given new life, Eli would promptly take another sack, this one by Melvin Oliver. This would set up another third down, this one a near impossible third and 14. Eli ran the “screw it, chuck it deep” play, but it worked. Bill Flowers came down with it 43 yards down the field. Manning would complete the drive by hitting Brandon Jacobs in the end zone from ten yards out on, you guessed it, third down.

Before this drive, Ole Miss had converted just one third down all game in ten tries. When it mattered most, they converted three in row. Two of them from 10-plus yards. It was, I can now admit from long in the future, a masterful, clutch drive.

Inspired by the tightening score, the Ole Miss defense forced a three and out. Sure, Donnie Jones booted another terrific punt, but Ole Miss got the ball at its own 14 and eight and half minutes left in the game. Eli would convert the first third down he faced, but then would march Ole Miss down the field, primarily on the back of a 31-yard completion to Flowers again. But on third and four from the 18, the LSU defense stepped up and made the huge stop, forcing a 36-yard field goal attempt. Jonathan Nichols, who had only missed two kicks all year and both from distance, pushed it to the right again.

It still might be the biggest missed field goal in Ole Miss history. People to this day talk about the stumble, but Jonathan Nichols missing that kick was near divine intervention. Nichols simply didn’t miss from inside 40. Except he did.

LSU couldn’t manage a first down on its next possession, hamstrung by a delay of game penalty. Donnie Jones booted another one inside the Ole Miss 20, but Mike Espy returned the punt to the 32. And with 2:16 left in the game, Eli had one last chance.

Will Muschamp called up the blitz. With the season on the line, the defense didn’t go conservative, they instead threw nearly everyone at the quarterback. In fact, the one down they didn’t send anyone (second down), Eli came within inches of connecting on a long bomb downfield, but the ball hung a half second too long and Jack Hunt knocked it away.

After three consecutive incompletions, Ole Miss lined up for a desperation fourth and ten to keep the drive alive. They called a timeout to draw up a play and whatever they planned to call, it never happened. As Eli took the snap, his own linemen stepped on his foot, and he fell backwards to the turf. There would be no desperation heave, for mighty Eli fell down.

It is unlikely Ole Miss would have converted a fourth a ten even had Eli not tripped. And had they converted the fourth down, it is unlikely they would have gained the near forty yards they needed to even attempt a field goal. It’s a moment that will live in infamy in Oxford, but it didn’t cost the Rebels the game, only the chance to pull of a miracle.

The miracle for LSU continued, however. LSU would run through the rest of its schedule and would climb into the top two of the BCS thanks to LSU’s additional win in the SEC Championship Game pushing it ahead of USC in the computers, something that the college football media got really mad about.

LSU would end the season in the Sugar Bowl, raising the trophy as national champions. None of that happens without first winning the SEC West.

Other Options

59-13 @Arizona

17-10 Georgia

31-7 Auburn

27-3 @Alabama

21-14 Oklahoma

The tone for the season was set by an absolute destruction of Arizona on the road. Now, the Wildcats weren’t a very good team, but that was a 44-point statement win. The first Georgia game had perhaps one of the most famous moments in Tiger stadium lore. Down 10-3 late in the game, David Greene connected with Tyson Browning for a 93 yard touchdown pass to tie the game. But instead of silencing the raucous crowd, the fans simply got louder, chanting “LSU! LSU!”. As if we were gonna let David Green beat us. Devery Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff 48 yards and with 1:30 left in the game, Matt Mauck hit Skyler Green for a 34-yard touchdown. It was a testament to the restored power of Tiger Stadium.

The two Alabama schools I include for fun. LSU stumbled against Florida, but rebounded with big wins. Auburn was the ranked team, but Bama might have been the bigger win, as the Tide has ruined so many great LSU seasons in the past. Not this time. And, of course, the season reached its climax with the coronation in the Sugar Bowl. LSU built a 21-7 lead thanks to its running game and a killer defense, and then managed to hold on in the final minute as Oklahoma made its last gasp.

It had seemed so far away a decade earlier, but here we were. Back in the promised land.

Poll

What’s the Greatest Game of 2003?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Ole Miss
    (19 votes)
  • 0%
    Arizona
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Auburn
    (1 vote)
  • 2%
    Alabama
    (4 votes)
  • 41%
    Georgia
    (60 votes)
  • 40%
    Oklahoma
    (59 votes)
144 votes total Vote Now