Tuberville gets a B-day to remember

Originally Published: September 18, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- The LSU Tigers came off the field in disbelief, the jet-engine roar of the biggest crowd in Auburn history raining down upon them. No. 4 LSU was going to lose to No. 15 Auburn, 10-9, and it had been 11 games and one national championship since LSU had lost.

Someone patted freshman quarterback JaMarcus Russell on the back, consoling him after he threw an interception that killed LSU's last-minute drive at the Auburn 38 with nine seconds to play. Early Doucet, the freshman receiver overtaken by Auburn safety Junior Rosegreen on the interception, came to the sideline and bent over at the waist, hands on knees, head hanging.

"Very disappointing, very disappointing," coach Nick Saban kept repeating, almost to himself.

Courtney Taylor
Auburn WR Courtney Taylor's first career TD catch came at the perfect time.
Long after the Auburn fans engaged in their victory ritual of throwing toilet paper into the trees at Toomer's Corner, they will remember this game for the satisfaction that comes from knocking off a champion. They will remember the joy on coach Tommy Tuberville's face as he got the 50th birthday present he wanted.

They will remember senior quarterback Jason Campbell, maligned so much over his five years here you would think he played for Alabama, converting a fourth-and-12 on the final drive, and throwing the 16-yard winning touchdown on third-and-12 with 1:14 to play.

They will remember senior tailback Carnell Williams, limited to five yards on nine second-half carries, wresting an interception out of LSU corner Corey Webster's hands on that final drive and gaining three yards when Webster would still be running in the other direction.

They will remember that Auburn held LSU to one field goal after the visitors took the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown.

At LSU, they will remember this game for tripping over a new page in the NCAA rulebook. That's not the only reason that LSU lost, but it is surely among the strangest reasons that any defending national champion ever got beat.

After Campbell found Courtney Taylor in the back of the end zone, tying the game at 9-9, Auburn snapper Pete Compton dribbled the snap back to holder Sam Rives. Kicker John Vaughn missed the extra point, the first time Auburn had missed one in five years.

Overtime loomed, and LSU, which beat Oregon State 22-21 in overtime two weeks ago after the Beavers missed three extra points, appeared to have found the same escape route.

"Sometimes in a good season," Tuberville said, "you just have to have lucky things go your way."

As the LSU sideline erupted in joy, a yellow flag lay on the grass. After LSU defensive back Ronnie Prude leapt to block the kick, he landed across the line of scrimmage on Compton. As of 2004, that's a personal foul. Given a second chance, Vaughn made the extra point -- although not after another roly-poly snap -- and Auburn (3-0, 2-0) became the team to beat in the SEC West.

Nick Saban, the coach of LSU (2-1, 0-1) went into an arm-waving tirade with two officials at the LSU sideline. Saban knows the rule all right. He's on the committee that passed it.

"It's a tough way to get beat," said Saban, the softness in his voice revealing his disconsolation. "We've struggled to get a clear definition of even what the rule is, and I'm on the rules committee. I'm sure that we probably didn't do it correctly and deserved to have the call. I'm not criticizing the officials," he said before landing a haymaker. "It was a cheap penalty to end up losing the game on."

Saban, as you may have guessed, said he voted against the rule.

No one deserves to lose a game on a call like that. Each team scored a touchdown and kicked a field goal. The victory margin came because LSU missed its extra point.

But the game was decided because Auburn had seniors where LSU had freshmen. You don't have to be an NFL super scout to see that Russell, the LSU quarterback, is going to be a great player. Russell shared the job again with senior Marcus Randall, but it was Russell who played the entire fourth quarter.

In the end, Auburn won because they knew how to recover. Last year, LSU scored on the sixth play of the game, then scored two more touchdowns in the first quarter. This year, LSU scored on the opening drive and didn't get in the end zone again.

Campbell, bruised and battered off the field as much as on through his career, looked like John Elway on the final, game-winning drive. He completed his final three passes in the teeth of a LSU rush, finishing 16-of-27 for 170 yards.

"Maybe the people outside of myself will lay off me some," Campbell said after the game. "I come out and play hard. People don't see it unless you win."

Campbell has had four offensive coordinators in his five years at Auburn. He has clicked with the new one, Al Borges, who sent in a formation for the game-winning play that Auburn hadn't shown all year. The Tigers went to an empty backfield, with Williams lined up wide on the left. Taylor was inside of him.

"You just try to spread them out a little bit," Borges said. "That play was totally designed for that area of the field. It was getting frustrating for all of us. Our theme for this year is 'Recover'. We recovered."

Campbell threw to Taylor, a sophomore who had caught 41 passes in his career without a touchdown. The thought in Taylor's head was just what you would imagine. Slowly and distinctly, Taylor said, "Don't. Drop. The. Ball."

In a rivalry that has an earthquake in its past -- 1988, when the roar after LSU's late touchdown in a 7-6 victory set off the seismograph machines on the Baton Rouge campus -- and a fire -- 1996, when flames consumed a campus building just outside of Jordan-Hare Stadium as LSU won, 19-15 -- maybe the unusual finish should have been expected in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.

There was a throwback feel to the day, with hundreds of thousands in Alabama still without electricity and reduced to listening to the game on the radio. On a crystalline, breezy Saturday afternoon -- low humidity in Alabama in September? -- LSU and Auburn played throwback, throwdown, smashmouth football. LSU finished with 308 total yards, Auburn 301.

"When you leave the score that close, you always leave it to one play," Saban said. "One guy missing a tackle, one guy falling down, one guy not covering exactly right, or one guy not coming on a blitz where he's supposed to be. That's what happens."

Saban forgot the one guy who couldn't defy gravity. When Prude came down on that extra-point attempt, Auburn got one more chance to follow its theme. Auburn recovered.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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