Bragging about schedule difficulty is now part and parcel with being an SEC fan. Much of the concern with the 2018 iteration of LSU football lies in a difficult schedule. Let us take a moment to look back at 1988, which opened like this:
vs. no. 10 Texas A&M
@ Ohio State
@ no. 17 Florida
vs. no. 4 Auburn
The bye week came between the A&M and Tennessee games. And while no, these were not great versions of Tennessee and Ohio State, those are exceptionally tough road environments, no matter good of a team they field.
LSU came with healthy expectations, starting the season ranked 18th, fresh off a 10-win season under new head coach Mike Archer. The 34-year old coach took over after the shocking departure of Bill Arnsparger, who would leave to take the Athletic Director post at Florida.
Arnsparger came to LSU, delivered a couple Sugar Bowl trips with the talent recruited by Jerry Stovall and promptly left LSU in worse shape than he found it. Poseur alluded to it, but while Stovall couldn’t deliver on the field, he did load up the roster. Perhaps his reputation of being one of the worst coaches in LSU history is excessive compared to his contributions, particularly loading up the roster for the future. Arnsparger reaped those benefits and failed to pay it forward, even to his former DC Mike Archer.
Archer is a bit of a whipping boy in the fanbase, primarily due to the insistent rumors that Steve Spurrier openly campaigned for the LSU job only to be passed over in favor of Archer. Add Mike Shanahan and Mack Brown to the list of candidates passed over by new LSU Athletic Director Joe Dean. How much of that is true will never be publicly answered. Spurrier took the the head gig at his alma just a couple years later. Mike Shanahan took the Raiders head coaching job and Mack Brown, well he set off for North Carolina. LSU wound up with an up & comer that probably had too much too fast.
Archer knocked year one out of the park, winning 10 games, losing only to Alabama while also tying Ohio State, then a top 10 team. So 1988 started with a fair amount of excitement, even if the schedule looked stacked. LSU split their opening four games, upsetting Texas A&M to start the season and going on the road to snare a rare Tennessee win, before falling to Ohio State and at Florida. Thus high hopes were quickly dashed as LSU fell to unranked before welcoming no. 4 Auburn to town.
The Greatest Game of 1988: Auburn
No shit huh? It’s our F’n namesake.
Mike Archer well understood the importance of the showdown, despite ESPN pushing to shift the game to an afternoon timeslot. Archer insisted on the night-time kickoff, knowing full well the impact of a full-throated, beer-soaked Tiger Stadium crowd.
This game will be forever remembered as a battle for the ages, mostly because of the sensational ending. But truly it wasn’t for the faint of heart. LSU punted 11 times. The teams combined for 18 total penalties and nearly 200 total penalty yards. The teams amassed 529 yards of offense... in total. Both teams completed fewer than 50% of their passes. It was ugly.
The game itself doesn’t inspire much discussion. The defenses deserve some credit, but the inept offenses equally as much. It was a slow, arduous build to a sensational ending. LSU only managed a single first down in the first quarter. Auburn picked up five, but to no avail, as the quarter ended tied at 0. Still, it felt inauspicious for LSU. Auburn moved up and down the field, picking up 92 yards in the first. They failed to capitalize, but it felt like only a matter of time before the dam would break and the no. 4 team in the nation would take over.
The second quarter produced even less excitement. Auburn’s offense sputtered out, as the LSU D woke up, managing only 62 more yards to close the half. LSU remained similarly fruitless. The only picked up one more first down. Their rushing attack managed 14 yards... on 12 carries. For the half. 12 punts, 8 penalties, and one turnover later this game found halftime with a 3-0 Auburn lead. Check out the halftime drive chart:
Not exactly the type of game upon which legends are built.
In the second half, LSU kicked it into gear. And by kicked it into gear they went from “failing to advance the football” to “mostly failing to advance the football.” Tommy Hodson actually threw for a first down on LSU’s drive to open the half. Naturally, LSU punted three players later. But hey, progress, man.
The Auburn offense picked up the steam again. QB Reggie Slack got the passing game going with a few completions before Auburn turned back to vintage Auburn and started pounding the rock. Moving down to the LSU 29 and facing a 3rd and 7, Auburn dropped back to pass again and this time Slack found LSU DB Greg Jackson for an INT.
LSU’s drive started about like the rest of the game. A carry for no gain and an incomplete pass pushing them into 3rd and long. Hodson came through, finding TE Ronnie Haliburton for 17 yards. Hodson then dialed up WR Tony Moss on back-to-back plays, first for nine and then for 23 more to get LSU into Auburn territory. They went to the Moss well again on a reverse attempt, which Auburn snuffed out for no gain. After an incomplete pass, Hodson looked for WR Tyke Tolbert on 3rd and 10, and Auburn interfered on the play, giving LSU a new set of downs now knocking on the redzone. Suddenly, LSU found itself in 3rd and 10 again, and Hodson went looking for Eddie Fuller. Auburn swarmed the play for two yard loss and to make matters worse, the refs penalized LSU for holding pushing them back out to the Auburn 40, out of FG range. The successful drive fell apart on one play.
Auburn took over from their own 20, but after picking up a 1st down on the first play of the drive, they quickly punted three plays later. LSU, of course, couldn’t stop making mistakes and committed a penalty on the punt return. LSU’s drive didn’t yield much, and they punted it back to Auburn with :40 to go in the 3rd. Auburn ran it twice to end the 3rd quarter still holding a 3-0 lead.
Slowly, Auburn progressed down the field, eating up small chunks on the ground... until a personal foul penalty halted their momentum. One thing you could count on in this game is that if you couldn’t stop the opponent they would go out of their way to stop themselves. On 3rd and 18 from their own 42, Pat Dye put the ball in the hands of Slack. Remarkably, Slack converted, finding WR Lawyer Tillman for a 19-yard completion. Two incomplete passes later Auburn found itself in 3rd and 10 from the LSU 39. Slack came through again, finding WR Greg Taylor for another 19 yards. The LSU pass defense, which bottled up the Auburn passing attack for most of the night, suddenly wilted, yielding a pair of big chunk passing plays putting Auburn into the redzone. Finally, the defense tightened again. After stuffing a pair of rushes for minimal gains, they bottled up a short pass and forced an Auburn FG. Not a perfect outcome, but one that kept the game within reach. Auburn took a 6-0 lead with 10 minutes to go in the game.
Archer put in QB Mickey Guidry, who immediately threw an incomplete pass, but a personal foul gave LSU 16 free yards. On Guidry’s second snap, LSU committed an illegal motion, pushing them backward again. Now 1st and 15, Guidry finally found Fuller for a 13-yard gain. On 2nd and 2 they handed to Fuller, who carried for just a yard, forcing a 3rd and one. Naturally, LSU committed another penalty, pushing it back to a 3rd and 6, effectively killing the drive. On 3rd down, Guidry fell down for a 3-yard loss. He wouldn’t return to the game.
Auburn took over after their punt, starting from their own 23. LSU D came to play, quickly forcing a 3 and out with 6:17 remaining on the clock.
Hodson took the field, of course unaware of the history about to unfold. Starting from the LSU 25, it began inauspiciously. Hodson threw an incomplete pass, intended for Alvin Lee. On 2nd down, Hodson went back to the reliable Moss, picking up 17 yards and a new set of downs. Again on 1st down, Hodson threw incomplete. And again on 2nd down he picked up double-digit yards, this time finding TE Willie Williams for 12. Now at the Auburn 46, take a guess how first down played out? Yep, another incomplete pass. On 2nd down, Hodson found Alvin Lee for 5, pushing LSU to a 3rd and 5 with 4:13 to play. Archer called a timeout.
Out of the timeout, on 3rd and 5 from the Auburn 41, Hodson found his most consistent target of the evening once again, hitting Moss for 20-yard gain. Suddenly, LSU were threatening. On 1st and 10 from the 21, Hodson threw yet another incomplete pass. On 2nd down he picked up a yard on a busted play, pushing LSU to a 3rd and 9. Hodson went looking for Moss again, but this time, proved unsuccessful. Now LSU sat with a 4th and 9 and the clock working against them. Archer decides the team can’t afford to play for a FG here and opts to go for it. Hodson delivered, finding TE Willie Williams for nine yards and a new set of downs. Now at the Auburn 11 it became crystal clear this would be nexus of the game.
On 1st and 10 from the 11, Hodson threw an incomplete in the direction of Eddie Fuller, because of course he did. On 2nd down, he repeated the act, this time toward Lee. Now 3rd and 10, Hodson went looking again this time for TE Ronnie Haliburton. Hodson placed the ball perfectly between defenders, right into the waiting hands of Haliburton. Who dropped it. Auburn calls a timeout with 1:47 to play.
LSU is now sitting with a 4th and 10 and one play to try and win the game.
Hodson calmly brought the team to the line. Tony Moss comes in motion toward the formation and Hodson snaps the ball, settling into the pocket. He stands tall ass the pressure starts to collapse in on him from DL Ron Stallworth. Hodson fearlessly pulls back to throw only a moment before Stallworth will lay into him, unleashing bullet over the heads of three Auburn defenders into the hands of the leaping Eddie Fuller. Touchdown. Tiger Stadium erupts.
You’d think that was the end of the game, but Auburn actually had an entire other possession to attempt to get into FG position to steal the game. 1:36 isn’t an eternity, but certainly enough time to make something happen. The LSU defense didn’t allow them even a single first down and Auburn turned it over for Hodson to take the victory formation on a pair of kneeling snaps.
There are none and I’m not gonna bother with a poll. LSU played other great games in 1988 but this stands as one of the pillars of LSU mythology. And sure, there’s some Auburn folks that want to try and ruin the fun, but that’s just Auburn folks doing what Auburn folks do. LSU beat Auburn. The noise registered on the seismograph. And I’ll never believe anything differently.