Here we are, at the end of our journey of the past 60 years of LSU football. We took a circuitous route, but there is no better place to end our journey that with the close of the Cholly Mac era.
Charles McClendon coached LSU for 18 years. He never won a national title, but he holds the school’s all-time win record (his 135 edges out Miles’ 114) and it is his tenure which still defines LSU football, even nearly forty years after his retirement. Even today, Cholly Mac defines LSU football: ball-control offense, terrible quarterback play, outstanding defense, an amazing home crowd, and then a great season constantly derailed by Alabama.
Hey, the truth hurts. So while Paul chose to close down his part of the series with The Game of the Century, I went the other way with this one. Everyone wants a list of wins, but that ain’t the truth. It is the losses which end up defining you, as those are the games that ended up sticking with you. Besides, winners aren’t as interesting. It is the noble failures which sing out over the course of history. This is why the greatest game in LSU history is not a triumphant victory, but instead an honorable defeat. The LSU mythos in one game is defined by the 1979 USC game.
After writing thirty of these things, you start to see a lot of the same themes popping up over and over again. The 1979 USC game has them all:
- Excellent defense. First and foremost, LSU’s entire history has been marked by superlative defensive efforts. Even the Billy Cannon Game is really the story of a series of defensive stands. The Game of the Century is the story of two of the greatest defenses ever.
- Terrible quarterbacks. I’m hard pressed to think of an all-time top 25 program with worse quarterback play than LSU. David Woodley and Steve Ensminger are perhaps the most LSU quarterback duo of all-time. They can’t all be Nelson Stokely or Rohan Davey.
- Coaching upheaval. 1979 was the culmination of a four-year campaign to fire Cholly Mac, leading to the insanity of the 1980s. By the USC game, fans were chanting “Bring Mac Back!” instead of “Help Mac Pack!” This sort of reversal in the climate of the fan base is similar to the end of the Miles era.
- Bama somehow benefiting. Bama would win the national title in 1979 just as LSU’s stunning upset of Arkansas in 1965 opened the door for Bama. Or LSU’s upset of No. 1 Ole Miss handed Bama the title in 1961. And 1964. Or how LSU’s upset of Auburn kept them from the playoffs last season. A place taken over by… Alabama.
- Getting screwed. LSU’s persecution complex starts in 1969 and continues on to the Game Which Shall Not Be Mentioned. But the legend of the bad calls in this game would become a crucial part of the LSU-USC myth. The calls were so bad that McClendon literally made a tape to play to the media on the Tuesday following the game.
- Most importantly, the history of LSU football is the history of you. While Tiger Stadium may be the master plan of Joe Corbett built up by the legends of McClendon, Saban, Dietzel, and Miles, but the story is that of a crazed fanbase that has moved time, rained fruit, and shook the earth. The 1979 is the crystallization of that myth in one game.
Not much was expected of the 1979 LSU football team. The drama of the coaching situation had played itself out and McClendon ended his four-year tenure as a lame duck. Charles Alexander left to the NFL, leaving a giant hole in the team’s production.
LSU entered the season unranked, but proceeded to blow the f’n doors off of their first two opponents, beating Colorado and Rice by a combined score of 91-3. Still, the USC team which travelled to Baton Rouge was historically great, and was viewed so at the time. Several coaches told Sports Illustrated in 1979 that it was the best college team ever. USC had the Heisman Trophy winner, Charles White, who was backed up by Marcus Allen. Ronnie Lott patrolled the secondary. Two All-Americans, Brad Budde and Keith van Horne, anchored the offensive line along with future Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz.
This is not nostalgia. This 1979 USC team was beyond loaded. They boasted three inner circle Hall of Famers (Allen, Lott, and Munoz), and that leaves off the guy who won the Heisman that season. LSU’s John Ed Bradley summed it up best, “They were billed as the best college football team in history,” Bradley said. “They had talent across the board. They were like a pro team playing in college… We were an average LSU team. We played with a lot of heart. When you’re young and you’re that age, you believe you can win any game.”
The great equalizer for LSU was its home crowd. This is the game which gave us the quote which now adorns the LSU Trophy Room, courtesy of Brad Budde, “It makes Notre Dame look like Romper Room.”
Ronnie Lott, one of the most intimidating players in football history and no stranger to hostile environments, remarked years later, “It’s probably the only time in my life I was intimidated by the crowd.” He noted it wasn’t just the game, it was the whole crazed environment, “There was a guy yelling right in my face and carrying a full fifth of liquor in his hand. I couldn’t believe it. That was a first for me. Not just a glass now -- I’d seen that -- but a full fifth bottle.” He continued, “From the time we landed to the time we left, I don’t know if a team has ever gone through that.”
LSU fans showed up to the movie theater at which the USC team watched a film the day before the game. They were aggressively Tiger Baited by the crowd. Even coach John Robinson was shaken, “Well, at first they wouldn’t let us off the bus.”
As John Ed Bradley put it from the LSU perspective, “I could barely hear the quarterback in the huddle. I remember looking across at the USC players on the first play and their eyes were as big as saucers. They had looks of just sheer terror.”
Sports Illustrated gave full credit to the LSU home advantage in its game story, “Southern Cal had the misfortune of encountering an LSU team which, pumped up beyond belief by its raucous fans, went out and played the entire game without its feet ever touching the ground. That was the only way the Tigers could’ve stayed with the Trojans.”
This was one of the first college football broadcasts in the history of ESPN, which in 1979 was still a fledgling virtually unknown cable outlet. However, I could not find a copy of the game online, which is a tremendous oversight on ESPN’s part. Look, y’all. You have the tape of one of the greatest games in college football history, you might want to make it accessible by the public. Just sayin’.
So, this is the best we got, five minutes of grainy highlights:
LSU opened the game on offense and went heavy on Hokie Gajan. Five of the first six plays from scrimmage were Gajan runs, but a holding call doomed the drive from the start, forcing a punt. USC took over the ball, quickly crossed midfield, and then had Paul McDonald take aim at the end zone on a deep ball. Chris Williams swooped under the ball, intercepted it at the two, and his momentum took him into the end zone for a touchback.
Two plays later, David Woodley would give the ball right back to USC with an interception of his own. USC took over at the 33 yard-line and would push the ball to the 16. However, the Trojans couldn’t get any closer, settling for a 32-yard field goal.
LSU would fail to gain a first down on third and four, but a USC penalty briefly saved the drive. LSU would cross into Trojan territory for the first time, but ultimately punted the ball away. USC would punt the ball right back and as the first quarter ended, LSU had weathered the early storm. Despite not playing its best football, the Tigers were down by a mere three points.
Cholly Mac shook up the lineup by putting Steve Ensminger into the game for the so far ineffective David Woodley. It paid immediate dividends. On 3rd and 13, Ensminger found Tracy Porter for 15 yards and a first down. On first down from the 12, one of the key plays of the game occurred: Hokie Gajan ran for a one yard loss, but in the process was taken down awkwardly by Herb Ward. Something in his leg gave, and Gajan would not return to the game. LSU was now short its leading rusher, forcing LeRoid Jones into the game. Ensminger would rifle him the ball wide open in the end zone on his first play from scrimmage. LSU would fumble the snap on the conversion, taking a 6-3 lead.
Doug MacKenzie would fumble the ensuing kickoff for USC, but the ball would go harmlessly out of bounds. USC mounted a drive primarily behind the running of White, but two delay of game flags stalled the drive and forced a punt.
LSU would punt the ball back to USC which would set up a Charles White fumble on the USC 42. Willie Teal recovered and now LSU had a late chance to extend its lead. Ensminger again found Porter for a big gain on third and long, getting the ball to the 20. With under two minutes in the half, walk-on kicker Don Bartel nailed a 32 yarder for a 9-3 lead.
USC scrambled down the field and put together its best drive of the game on a two minute drill. Marcus Allen salvaged 3rd and 14 with a 15 yard scamper, giving the Trojans one last gasp. McDonald found Ray Butler for a 24-yard gain down to the 11 as time wound down. The field goal unit rushed on to the field and the Trojans got the snap off before even the chain gang was able to get set, but Eric Hipp missed a 26-yard chip shot as the final second ticked away in the half. Unbelievably, LSU had a 9-3 lead over the “best team in history.” And their best offensive player (Carlos Carson) had been quiet all half and their second best offensive player (Hokie Gajan) was now out for the game.
USC opened up the second half by going to their most potent weapon: Charles White. White already had 99 yards on just 10 carries in the first half, and he would carry the ball on each of USC’s first five plays of the second half. For a breather, the Trojans gave the ball to Marcus Allen, before going back to more Charles White. At fourth and two from the the 16, Charles Robinson elected to go for it, and White plowed ahead for three yards. However, USC couldn’t punch it in, stalled out by a procedure penalty due to the crowd noise. Hipp would miss from 32, squandering an epic 16-play drive that drained nearly seven minutes of clock.
Cholly Mac stood by his gameplan and put David Woodley back in the game despite Ensminger playing well and Woodley yet to complete a pass. Woodley responded by scampering down the field on what seemed to be a string of broken plays. The biggest, and most controversial, came on 3rd and 11 when Woodley would scramble for a first down at midfield, pushed out by Jeff Fisher (yes, THAT Jeff Fisher). Aided on the tackle was a helmetless Trojan wearing 34, who came off the bench to make the assist. Seriously, go back to the highlights, you can see it near the two minute mark. McClendon would include it on his tape of questionable calls he presented to the press next week.
LeRoid Jones would nearly break a touchdown run in what was shaping up to being the best game of his career. Jude Hernandez followed up with a first down run down to the two. Then, USC made a huge goal line stand, first knocking Jesse Myles out of midair for no gain. Cholly Mac would try to catch the Trojans offguard with an end round, but instead Porter lost nine yards on the play. And on third down, Carlos Carson got his hands on the ball in the end zone, moments before Herb Ward managed to knock it away. LSU settled for a disappointing field goal and a 12-3 lead.
LSU would go into the fourth quarter up by nine, fifteen minutes away from the biggest upset in school history. The crowd was deafening, and USC would punt the ball back to LSU to start the quarter. LSU could do nothing with it, and a poor LSU punt gave USC the ball with 12:23 left at their own 43. It took just six plays and 2:29 to travel 57 yards, with White finally crossing the goalline from four yards out. USC cut the lead to 12-10 and we were in a dogfight.
All of a sudden, all of those points LSU left on the board loomed a lot larger. LSU moved the ball a bit, but punted the ball away with 6:46 left in the game. USC took over inside its own 20, and on the second play of the drive, fortune smiled on LSU. George Atiyeh knocked the ball loose from Allen, recovered by LSU. LSU had the ball on the USC 26 and under six minutes to play.
McClendon kept the more running inclined Woodley in the game with his better passer in Ensminger on the bench. It proved to be a fatal mistake. Wooldey would throw to Jesse Myles on first down, but an offensive pass interference call would push the ball back 15 yards. LSU followed that up with a delay of game penalty, confused by their own home crowd noise. LSU would disastrously punt on fourth and 40. The Allen fumble ended up costing USC just one yard and 1:36 of clock.
But time was still running out on the Trojans, and they would need their passing game to come through. With the clock winding down on third and nine, McDonald would be brought down in the backfield, unable to find a receiver. Benjy Thibodeaux brushed McDonald’s face mask, and the flag fluttered down. McLendon thought it would be of the five-yard incidental variety, but the refs went for the full fifteen personal flag. As McDonald himself would remark, “His hand did brush my face mask, but it was a very, very fortunate call. I was kind of surprised we got the call to tell you the truth.”
McClendon ranted and raved on the sideline, also accurately pointing out that two USC linemen moved early before the snap, which should have negated the entire play. But the call stood, and USC got its crucial third down conversion. McDonald would find Kevin Williams on a swing pass from 8 yards out with 32 seconds left, putting USC back in front, 17-12.
However, the game was not yet over. Chris Williams would return the kickoff 20 yards, and a USC unsportsmanlike penalty moved the ball down to the LSU 42. Ensminger came into the game for the final drive, and found Robert DeLee for a 28-yard gain down to the USC 30. LSU would end up with two shots at the end zone, both broken up by Dennis Smith.
As the Tigers fell heartbroken to the turf, its impossible upset bid thwarted by the hands of fate, the crowd rose up and did a truly remarkable thing: they cheered. The Tigers left the field as the stadium chanted, “L-S-U! L-S-U!”
Ronnie Lott called the scene one of the greatest of his career, “Every one of us left that night saying ‘that was a game, ‘ but I still think about it that way. I haven’t been in an event like that at any level of football. Out of all the games I’ve ever played in, I’ve never been in anything like that, and I am including my Super Bowls in that assessment.”
Or in the words of John Ed Bradley, the LSU team captain, “I know what it meant to Coach Mac. If a game can personify a man, that game was Coach Mac. He came in an underdog and left all his guts on the field. His ragtag bunch of kids from Louisiana played the best team ever and left it all on the field.”
And that, my friends, is the real story of LSU football.