The Bring Back the Magic Game rightfully gets most of the attention when we look back at the 1990s. It was the game that started LSU on the long climb back to respectability. However, the traditional narrative gives short shrift to the 1996 team, which actually won ten game for the first time in a decade.
Without the 1996 season, the Bring Back the Magic Game is just a nice win over Auburn. That team went 7-4-1 which was a massive improvement on the six straight losing seasons that mark the Dark ages of LSU Football, but it wasn’t like the program was back.
In 1996, LSU football returned to the top ten and was a player in the SEC and the national scene for the first time in a decade. LSU football did not fully recover from the death of Bo Rein until then. This wasn’t Bring Back the Magic, this was bringing back normalcy: LSU has a national power.
LSU entered the season nationally ranked for the first time since 1989. It would be the first season since 1988 that LSU would start the season in the AP poll and spend the entire season ranked. 1996 had the unremarkable but necessary job of consolidating the early gains of the Dinardo era.
But before all that, LSU had to take care of business in a home season opener against a 23-point underdog, the Houston Cougars. For the first time in ages, LSU had expectations, and the team might have been looking ahead to its road trip to Auburn in a few weeks. As the excitement of a possible SEC contender settled in on Baton Rouge, someone forgot to tell Houston they were just supposed to be some sacrificial lambs.
Luckily for LSU, we had Kevin Faulk to bail us out. The problem was that we had to wait for Clark Kent to turn into Superman.
First off, this is the Houston broadcast. It is a monument to homer calls. I don’t know who UH hired to announce their games in the 1990s, but they are incredibly entertaining. It’s not so much announcing the game as openly rooting for Houston and constantly pleading with the refs for favorable calls. I cannot recommend this broadcast more highly.
Things got off to inauspicious start. Wade Richey booted the ball down near the goalline, but Ketric Sanford nearly returned it the length of the field, only getting tripped up by Richey at the LSU 46. It’s never a good sign when your kicker records the first tackle of the game. The Houston drive nearly stalled out right away, but quarterback Chuck Clements converted a fourth and one sneak for a first down, aided by an LSU personal foul. Houston would get inside the 10, but settled for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
LSU answered the only way they knew how, by giving the ball to Kevin Faulk a lot. However, it didn’t work every time as the two teams exchanged punts. LSU looked like it was on its way to punting again, but Herb Tyler found David LaFleur downfield for 40 yards on 3rd and 12. Kevin Faulk would take it down to the three on the next play, and then score on the next. Despite the early wobbled, LSU was up 7-3 and everything was going to be okay.
LSU looked to add more late in the first quarter when Herb Tyler had consecutive disastrous plays. First, he took a ten yard sack on second down and then on third and forever, he threw an interception returned back to the LSU 40. Houston would pick up one first down and then added another field goal, this from 42 yards out.
Early on the second quarter, LSU made perhaps the key error of the game. Facing a 2nd and 19 from their own 6 yard line, Clements’ pass to Maurice Bryant fell incomplete. However, LSU was flagged for pass interference, giving the Houston offense new life. The Cougars started picking up yardage in huge chunks, and Antowain Smith scored on a 25-yard run to give Houston back the lead. LSU took some comfort in the fact the two point conversion try failed, but LSU now faced a tough game when they expected a romp.
LSU took the next drive to the fringed of the red zone, but Faulk made one of his few mistakes of his career, losing ten yards. The extra yardage brought LSU’s long range kicker onto the field, and Wade Richey, predictably, missed from 45 yards.
With two minutes left in the half, LSU got the ball back at its own 25, content to run out the half down by a score. Kevin Faulk then made his second mistake of the game, a fumble recovered by Louis Hampton after a short gain. Houston took over at the 29 yard line and on third down, Chuck Clements found Damion Johnson for a 24 yard touchdown. This time, they converted the two pointer.
LSU hadn’t played terribly, but they had made some critical mistakes to help Houston out, and found themselves in a 20-7 hole at the half. Besides, LSU would get the ball first and everything would be okay.
On the first play of the second half, Kevin Faulk rewarded the Tiger faithful, bursting forth with an 80-yard touchdown run. Right off the bat, LSU was right back in the game at 20-14.
LSU would force a Houston punt and started its drive to take back the lead. The LSU offense crossed midfield and started to threaten again. But again, disaster. On third down, Herb Tyler found David LaFleur for a 29-yard gain and an easy first down conversion, but LaFleur would fumble the ball as he was being brought down. Houston’s Damon Harris pounced on the football and returned it 63 yards the other way. Instead of first down inside the Houston 15, now Houston had the ball at the LSU 25.
Ketric Sanford would carry the ball down to the one yard line, and just a play later, Clements would add another touchdown pass to his statline. A few minutes ago, it looked like LSU was on the verge of taking back the lead, and now they were down by two scores. Things were about to get even worse.
On LSU’s first play from scrimmage after the Houston touchdown, Kevin Faulk gained ten yards and fumbled again. The ball bounced right to Stedmon Forman, who returned the ball 30 yards into the LSU end zone. Now, things were dire. LSU was suddenly down 34-14.
LSU responded with a confident drive, again crossing midfield and bring the ball into Cougar territory. And again, LSU coughed the ball up. Herb Tyler threw another interception, and the third quarter would end with LSU down by 20 points thanks to five turnovers.
Things started to turn around for LSU on the very first play of the fourth quarter. Ignacio Sauceda punted the ball to the 22-yard line, where Kevin Faulk was waiting. 78 yards later, Kevin Faulk was celebrating a punt return for a touchdown.
The Tiger defense again forced a punt, and the LSU offense leaned heavily on the twin blows of Kevin Faulk and Rondell Mealey. In six carries split evenly between the two, the offense travelled 79 yards down to the Houston one. Then, Kendall Cleveland pushed the ball over the line and with 8:22 left in the game, LSU had cut the lead down to six.
Houston could not manage a single first down and LSU took over again. This time, it was Rondell Mealey who brought the big play, scoring from 36 yards out to give LSU a 35-24 lead. LSU had come all the way back, but had they done so too quickly? Houston still had three and half minutes on the clock.
Wade Richey put the kick out of bounds, gifting Houston a free 15 yards. But the LSU defense came through and forced a three and out. With still 2:24 on the clock, Houston elected to punt. It almost worked out, as Faulk fumbled the catch, but quickly covered up.
LSU still needed a first down to secure the victory, and that’s when the Houston announcers gifted us the “S on His Chest” call.
Kevin Faulk ended the game with 246 yards rushing, a new LSU single game record since broken. What hasn’t been broken is Faulk’s total yards from scrimmage. He added 8 yards receiving and 106 yards in punt returns. His 360 yards from scrimmage in a single game still stands as a school record. We’ve decided to ignore the three fumbles, two of them lost. We do that when you score three touchdowns and almost single-handedly author a 20-point fourth quarter comeback.
Even his backup had a monster game. Rondell Mealey quietly had 161 yards rushing and a score. All told, LSU turned the ball over five times without forcing one turnover in return. It didn’t matter. LSU had the guy with S on his chest.
19-15 @ #13 Auburn
28-20 Mississippi St.
39-7 Ole Miss
10-7 Clemson (Peach Bowl)
In LSU’s next game, the Tigers travelled to Auburn and won a wild one in which the Barn the Burned. Raion Hill had a monster fourth quarter, returning an interception for a touchdown to give LSU the lead, and then returning an interception on a two-point conversion attempt with 36 seconds left which would have tied the game. LSU had twin killings of its Mississippi rivals. State was down 28-14 in the fourth and twice got inside the five yard line, only to settle for field goals each time. LSU capped off a ten win season with an ugly Peach Bowl win over Clemson.
As nice as ten wins were, LSU also showed it was a long way from the top of the conference. Florida and Alabama dealt LSU its only two losses of the season, but they were by a combined 69 points. LSU was back, but it wasn’t all the way back just yet.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1996?
This poll is closed
Fourth quarter comeback v. Houston
Barn burns at Auburn
Surviving Mississippi St.
Blowing out Ole Miss
The tenth win, against Clemson