LSU sweet as Sugar
Monday, January 5, 2004
NEW ORLEANS -- There's no question who's No. 1 to the thousands of purple-and-gold partyers in tiger stripes who packed the Superdome and Bourbon Street.
That LSU likely will have to share the national title hardly matters.
By holding off Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and Oklahoma 21-14 at the very end Sunday night in the Sugar Bowl, these Tigers certainly proved they belonged in the Bowl Championship Series finale.
Too bad for college football fans everywhere that there's not one more game left for No. 2 LSU -- against top-ranked Southern California.
The Tigers automatically received the USA Today/ESPN coaches' crown for winning this game over the third-ranked Sooners. But a split championship loomed because top-ranked USC all but wrapped up The Associated Press title with a 28-14 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
True freshman Jason Vincent ran loose for 117 yards, defensive end Marcus Spears scored on an interception return and coach Nick Saban's team never trailed in bringing LSU its first crown since 1958.
All-America Chad Lavalais and his LSU teammates shut down the nation's top-scoring team for most of the game, extending the jinx that haunted previous Heisman winners such as Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch and Gino Torretta.
White found his touch in the fourth quarter and led the Sooners down the field in the final minutes. But on fourth down at the LSU 12, White's pass was tipped and it trickled off the hands of star receiver Mark Clayton in the end zone.
Other Sooners argued, yet Clayton picked up the ball and shook it, knowing his chance had slipped away.
Oklahoma got the ball back once more, and White was sacked on its final play as the LSU band blared yet another version of "Hold that Tiger!"
Up to 1 million people were expected to swarm the French Quarter -- LSU's campus in Baton Rouge is only 70 miles away -- and the Tigers' victory brought in Mardi Gras about two months early for those fans.
Inside, a record crowd of 79,342 that slowly made its way through heavy security before the game went crazy cheering for the Tigers (13-1), who finished last season not even ranked in the AP Top 25.
The loss was a bitter one for the Sooners (12-2). They had seethed for nearly a month after their perfect season was wrecked in a humbling 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.
Kejuan Jones scored on two short runs for the Sooners, but their hope for an eighth national title was ruined by untimely penalties and mistakes. Coach Bob Stoops, whose team won the unified championship in 2000, spent as much of the game shouting at the officials as his own team.
Stoops' brother, Mike, also was on the sidelines. The co-defensive coordinator for the Sooners, he spent one more game with the team before taking over full-time as Arizona's new coach.
Vincent gave a glimpse of what was to come on the very first play from scrimmage. The true freshman juked right, cut back left and galloped up the middle for 64 yards.
LSU fumbled away its chance to score right away when quarterback Matt Mauck bobbled a snap on first-and-goal at the 1 and All-American defensive back Derrick Strait recovered. Mauck is known for having better hands than that -- he was a catcher in the Chicago Cubs' minor league system.
White gave the ball right back, though. On the Sooners' second play, he made an ill-advised throw that Corey Webster intercepted at midfield. And this time, LSU quickly took advantage.
Shifty receiver Skyler Green went in motion, took a handoff from Mauck and danced around the right side untouched for a 24-yard touchdown.
White finished 13-for-37 for 102 yards with two interceptions.
The top-scoring team in the country, Oklahoma was blanked in the opening quarter for the first time this season. Then again, the Tigers were accustomed to such performances.
LSU limited opponents to only 10.8 points, the best scoring defense in the nation. Anchoring the middle, as always, was Lavalais, who spent one year working as a prison guard before enrolling in school.
Oklahoma broke through midway in the second quarter, literally, when two Sooners burst through LSU's punt-block formation and Brandon Shelby smothered Donnie Jones' kick. They took over at the 2, and Jones' 1-yard burst tied it.
LSU took the ensuing kickoff and zoomed down the field 80 yards behind Mauck and Vincent. Mauck completed passes to four receivers and Vincent carried three times for 43 yards, capped by a snaking, 18-yard TD run for a 14-7 lead.
Vincent held up both index fingers in celebration, and the LSU crowd let loose later as the school's glittery Golden Girls and the 325-member Golden Band from Tigerland put on a spirited show at halftime.
When the third quarter began, the fans got even wilder because of Spears.
On the first play, he sacked White. On the next, Spears dropped back into coverage in the right flat and seemed to surprise White, making an easy interception.
The big defensive end barreled toward the end zone and no one was going to stop him, scoring standing up when White bounced off him at the goal line.